of NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg with Radio Ekho Moskvy, journalist Alexey Venediktov
Q: Dear Secretary General, if you can see it behind my back, there is your picture when you were the Prime Minister of Norway; that is when you were our guest for the first time. This is your second time in our studio and well, I became white in the meantime, after I spoke to our government. Your hair is not yet grey as I can see.
NATO Secretary General: Well, also mine here has become a bit grey or more grey since that picture was taken. And since I was in your radio studio last time. But it's great to see you again.
Q: Let us go to the questions. Today on the air, we've had the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergei Lavrov of the Russian Federation. But because I am the slowest and the dumbest journalist in Russia, I didn't understand several things from his interview and I would like to ask you to explain them to me. The first question: the Russian side has asked you not to expand the North Atlantic Alliance. According to what Mr. Lavrov said, you refused. Is this the final refusal? Will this question not be discussed anymore?
NATO Secretary General: So we have, just a couple of days ago, conveyed our written proposals to Russia, where we list a wide range of areas where we believe it is possible to find common ground. Arms control, missiles, transparency of military activities, risk reduction. We believe that we should re-establish our diplomatic contacts and many other proposals where we really believe that we can find a political way forward for Russia and NATO. Because it is in nobody's interest to have a new armed conflict. And therefore NATO wants a political solution. NATO is a defensive alliance.
Then on the issue of membership. NATO's door is open, but NATO has never forced any nation through that door. We respect the free, democratic, independent decisions by free and independent nations. So we will never force any country to join NATO. We also respect the sovereign decision of every nation to choose its own path, something which is also enshrined in, for instance the Helsinki Final Act and many other documents that also Russia has subscribed to.
Q: So it means that you will never close the door.
NATO Secretary General: The right of every nation to choose its own path is enshrined in the core documents that Russia and all other nations in Europe have subscribed to, signed. They are, they are the foundations for our security and stability, starting with the Helsinki Final Act back in 1979, the Paris Charter in 1990, the Budapest Memorandum from 1992 and many other documents that of course give independent nations the right to choose their own path.
So NATO’s door is open but it is for countries themselves to decide whether they want to move and to go through that door. So let me just give an example. I spoke recently with the Finnish President Niinistö and the Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson. Finland and Sweden, they are currently not applying for or aspiring for NATO membership, but they strongly advised against NATO signing that legally binding agreement that Russia wants us to sign to close the NATO door. Because Finland and Sweden as independent non-NATO countries, they want to preserve the right to decide their own future. Also in the future.
They don't want big powers to decide what smaller neighbours can do. That would move us back to the to the old world of Yalta, where big powers decided, divided Europe between them and where big powers decided what neighbours could do. We don't want to move back to that spheres of influence world. We need independent nations to be free to make their own decisions, whether to join an organisation like NATO or not to join. We respect regardless of what they decide; it's their decision and only their decisions to choose their own path.
Q: I don't know whether you know, Mr. Secretary General, that President Putin, the President of Russian Federation, just stopped his talks with the French President, Mr. Macron. And as far as we know, he spoke about his disappointment with the kind of answer you just gave me. I'm not Putin, but you are still Mr Stoltenberg. So what else would you say to the President?
NATO Secretary General: That we are ready to sit down. We are ready to engage in good faith in substantive talks. We are ready to listen to the Russian concerns. We have proven before, NATO Allies and Russia, that it's possible to agree. Possible to find political solutions. We have a long track record of, for instance, agreements on arms control, limiting the strategic nuclear weapons. We are also familiar with the INF Treaty that banned all intermediate range weapons. We have had different agreements on confidence-building measures, transparency and so on.
So we have listed a wide range of areas ranging from arms control, nuclear missiles to the challenge of military and civilian communications to make sure that we prevent a new conflict in Europe. NATO doesn't want a new armed conflict in Europe. We want peace and it's not in the interest of the people of Russia to have a new armed conflict in Europe. The aggressive actions Russia has conducted against Ukraine, have actually not served the interests of the people of Russia because it has led to economic sanctions. This has damaged the reputation of Russia, and it has destroyed the practical cooperation we had between NATO and Russia.
So we should seek a political solution and we are ready to sit down. And that's my message to President Putin, to the Russian Government, to the people of Russia: that we are ready to talk.
Q: Look, about half an hour ago, you were speaking at the Atlantic Council and you mentioned that NATO will not place battlegroups in Ukraine. If I understood correctly - I'm a bit dumb. I could have misunderstood this - but nevertheless NATO is stationing troops closer to Russian borders. Yes, within their Alliance territory you are going to transfer the task force. So the German brigade into Baltic States or Poland. But why? You are transferring troops closer to the Russian borders.
NATO Secretary General: The Russian aggression against Ukraine leads to the opposite of what Russia wants. Because the more aggression we see from Russia against Ukraine, the more NATO troops there will be in the eastern part of NATO allied territories.
So before Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea and the military control over Donbas, eastern Ukraine, we had no, zero NATO battlegroups, combat troops in the eastern part of the Alliance. After 2014, after Russia went into Ukraine with military force, we have deployed on our borders battle groups in the Baltic countries and Poland and we have increased the presence in the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea region.
NATO is a defensive Alliance, but we have to make sure that there is no room for misunderstanding. That if Russia tries to do anything similar to what Russia has done against Georgia in 2008 and in Ukraine in 2014, and if that is done against a NATO allied country, then the whole alliance will respond. That would trigger our Article 5 our collective defence clause, which says that an attack on one ally is regarded as an attack on all allies. One for all, and all for one.
So the reason why we have deployed and have the NATO battlegroups in the eastern part of the Alliance is to send that message to Russia after they used military force against Ukraine in 2014. If Russia goes further in invading Ukraine, then there will be more NATO troops in the eastern part of the NATO alliance.
But you are right that this is about NATO troops on NATO territory. We have no plans of deploying NATO troops in Ukraine. There are no plans for any NATO combat troops in in Ukraine. Ukraine is a highly valued partner but Ukraine is not a NATO member. What we do to Ukraine is that we provide support, but we have no plans of deploying NATO troops.
There will be a high cost for Russia if they move into Ukraine with economic sanctions. The Ukrainian army is much more, much better prepared now than in 2014. And of course there will be more troops in the Eastern part of the NATO alliance.
Q: My last question to you, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. Is Russia now, at this moment, the main threat for NATO?
NATO Secretary General: NATO has many challenges and we live in an unpredictable world. So we are ready to address all of them at the same time. We don't list or rank the different threats and challenges. We live in a more unpredictable world.
Fundamentally, we strive for a better relationship with Russia. I have been in Russia many times. I know that Russia is a great nation, great people. I have had nice experiences in Moscow, in Murmansk, in Nikel close to the Norwegian border. I worked with Russians on energy issues, on environmental issues. We agreed a delimitation line between Norway and Russia to open the Barentz Sea. So I know it's possible to cooperate and to make agreements and to work with Russia and the Russian people.
Therefore I regret that the aggressive actions of Russia, especially since 2014, has led to where we are today. Where there is much less room for negotiations, for cooperation. But that's exactly also why NATO so clearly has conveyed to Russia in our written proposals from the United States and from NATO allies, including the United States, our willingness to sit down. I have invited Russia in the NATO Russia Council, to meet in this series of meetings and to address the different topics, European security, to listen to the Russian concerns, arms control, many other issues. To find a political path forward because it is really in nobody's interest to have a new conflict in Europe.
Q: A purely theoretical question: would it be possible that a NATO country would not deploy the [whole?] offensive weaponry against Russia, close to Russian borders? When the DDR became united with West Germany, Gorbachev and Kohl decided to agree that offensive weaponry would not be placed closer to the borders of Russian Federation in DDR. Thank you.
NATO Secretary General: First of all, I think it's important that NATO is a defensive alliance. We are not a threat to Russia. It is of course correct that NATO is a much bigger alliance today than we were in 1990 or at the end of the Cold War. But that's has been the great success story - the enlargement of NATO. We are almost twice as many members today than at the end of the Cold War. Then we were 16 members. Now we are 30 members and this has been a great success story for the whole of Europe. It has helped to spread democracy, the rule of law, prosperity.
And again this has taken place because nations have chosen by their free will. The people in the Baltic countries, in Poland, in other countries in Central Eastern Europe, have decided through their free will, democratic processes to join our alliance. We are not an offensive alliance. We are a defensive alliance, but after the aggressive actions to Ukraine we have deployed forces on our territory. But that hasn't changed our nature and NATO continues to be a defensive alliance.
Q: Thank you very much, but I can't help asking what your analysts are saying about the possibility of combat action between Russian and Ukrainian armies. What are the chances fifty-fifty, seventy-thirty? What are you getting prepared for? This is my last question.
NATO Secretary General: We are prepared for both options, meaning that we are working hard for the best, for a political solution. But we are also of course prepared for the worst: a new armed conflict. Russia again using military force against a neighbour, Ukraine.
We call on Russia to deescalate. To reduce tensions and to engage in good faith in a political dialogue. That's the best for the Russian people. That's the best for the people in NATO countries, and that's best for all of us.
I'll not speculate about the likelihood, but Russia has a choice. Russia can of course decide not to invade, not to use military force. To respect the territorial borders of all nations, all countries in Europe and then to sit down with NATO. We are ready to sit down to listen to Russian concerns and to engage in substantive talks on a wide range of issues that are our mutual interests for both Russia and NATO allies.
Q: Thank you very much. I will remind you that you are on air with Ekho Moskvy and Jens Stoltenberg, Secretary General of the North Atlantic Alliance. I hope, Jens, when you will be coming to Moscow again, you will come to our studio so I can place the picture of a grey Jens Stoltenberg next to the picture of a young Jens Stoltenberg.
NATO Secretary General: Thank you so much, Alexey, and I promise that when I go back to Moscow I will go to your studio.
Q: We will remember. Thank you very much. This was Jens Stoltenberg, Secretary General of NATO.