by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in a conversation on ''The Road to Vilnius'' at the Brussels Forum organized by the German Marshall Fund of the United States

  • 24 May. 2023 -
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  • Mis à jour le: 25 May. 2023 13:17

(As delivered)

Helene Cooper, NYT Correspondent: Hello, hi, everybody. Hello, Secretary General.

Thanks for agreeing to do this. I'm supposed to introduce you but I think this is an audience that you need no introduction, everybody this is Jens Stoltenberg. Secretary General the NATO. It's a pleasure to be with you today. You know that you have quite the reputation with English speaking journalists who cover NATO. Being very direct and concise in press conferences. You don't say more than you intend to say and then when you get with the Norwegians, you're laughing. You're having a blast. What are you telling your countrymen that you're not telling us?

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg: I'm telling them jokes and anecdotes. That's, that's easy to tell them.

Helene Cooper, NYT Correspondent: I was going to do this in Norwegian, but my Norwegian it's not really up to par. So NATO has never been more consequential, I think, than it has been in this past year. When you look back at this past year, what stands out for you?

NATO Secretary General: First of all, thank you. Thank you and thank the German Marshall Fund and thank you Ian, Heather, for convening us all here. It's great to be back.

The German Marshall Fund is an extremely important platform for transatlantic conversations, dialogue and discussions, which has always been important, but in many, many ways, it's even more important now than it has been ever before.

Because we have to understand that what we face now, the war in Ukraine, of course demonstrates the importance of North America and Europe standing together. But it didn't start on the 24th of February last year. This war actually started in 2014, with the illegal annexation of Crimea and then a few months later, Russia went in and took control over eastern Donbas.

And since then since 2014, and NATO has implemented the biggest reinforcement of our collective defence in a generation. With, for the first time in our history, combat ready troops in the eastern part of the Alliance, with higher readiness, with more exercises, and also with more defence spending.

So when President Putin launched his full-fledged invasion last year, we were prepared, both to increase our presence in these eastern part of the Alliance to remove any room for miscalculation, or misunderstanding in Moscow about our ability to protect NATO Allies. To prevent this conflict from escalating beyond Ukraine but also to provide support to Ukraine. And since then, we stepped up the support.

If we're going to add that this, what has happened over the last year or the last 15 months, demonstrates that President Putin made at least two big strategic mistakes. One was to underestimate the Ukrainians, the bravery, the resolve, the courage of the Ukrainian people, the Ukrainian political leadership and Ukrainian armed forces.

And they've been able to push back the [Russians], from the north around Kyiv, the east Kharkiv, and the south around Kherson, but he also totally underestimated us: NATO Allies and partners. He didn't expect at all our unity, our resolve to support Ukraine. And we have provided a lot of support over a long period of time. Just over the last months we have delivered a lot of heavy armour battle tanks, the Leopards, the Challengers, and now also the Abrams tanks from the United States. Over the last weeks, the United Kingdom has delivered something which is extremely important, and that is the long-range cruise missiles, which are making a difference on the battlefield already.

And then over the last days, we have agreed to start the training of Ukrainian pilots. This shows a kind of commitment to the long haul. Then I promise to end and to take more questions, but he has made the big mistake President Putin to underestimate the Ukrainians, to underestimate us.

In turn, we should not underestimate Russia. Because it's right, they have taken a lot of casualties. They have bad morale. Bad equipment, bad training, bad logistics, bad leadership. But what they lack in quality they tried to make up in quantity – mass –, and therefore we just had to be prepared for long haul. And the only way to do that is to ensure that Europe and North America stand together not only to deal with the war in Ukraine but to deal with what the war in Ukraine reflects. And that is, that we live in a much more competitive world with big power rivalry – including the rise of China – and as long as we stand together, North America and Europe, we are able to protect each other. 50% of the world's economic might, 50% of the world's military might.

That is NATO, Europe and North America together. That's what the transatlantic bond is about. I don't know exactly what you asked me about but this was [what I wanted to say].

Helene Cooper, NYT Correspondent: See, it’s weird because I have all these questions I want to ask you, but you just said something that trips me up because you said it's important.

We certainly did underestimate Ukrainian will. But you're saying it's important that we don't underestimate Russia. Haven't we overestimated Russia in the past? We thought they were going to bring a whole lot more to bear here than they managed to, especially militarily?

NATO Secretary General: I think, the jury's out. I mean, this war is not over. What we have seen, is that the Ukrainians have been extremely capable of using the resources they have and of course, they impress the whole world. Starting with President Zelensky saying: “I don't even need a ride. I need ammunition” on the first day. And of course that send an honest, strong political message and I think the war and President Zelensky and the Ukrainian leadership have demonstrated the importance of political leadership in a war. And therefore, they have been able to achieve impressive things by liberating big swaths of Ukrainian land in the north and east and in the south.

But you know, now the fronts have been quite static for a long time. So the Russians have been able to dig in, deep defensive lines, with trenches for battle tanks, to stop battle tanks. We call these dragon teeth, which are these concrete things which are spread around many, many kilometres of stopping, armoured vehicles formed from passing. And then of course, a lot of different and quite advanced minefields in different layers.

So now the next stage is to penetrate, to push through these defensive lines, which they have been building for months. And to do so, they need modern advanced equipment. They need the battle tanks, they need the infantry fighting vehicles, which they have had, you know, they have them.

But I think, many of us underestimate the importance of what the military experts call enablement and sustainment because they need engineering capabilities to cross the minefields, to mine close, to breach these obstacles and that's highly specialized things and then need those to allow the battle tanks to operate. Then, of course, all these battle tanks or infantry fighting vehicles, they need sustainment, meaning that they can operate for a day or two, but then they need spare parts, they need fuel, they need special lubricants, they need maintenance [and] repair capacity.

And as you all know, a battle tank doesn't drive to the tanking station for fuel. The tanking station has to drive to the battle tank in the battlefield. So this whole logistics thing, its enormous.

This is a war of attrition and a war of attrition becomes a battle of logistics. And sometimes we are extremely focused on whether they will be this or that type of battle tank or F-16s or so on. That's important. But I think we sometimes underestimate the importance of ensuring that all the systems which are already in Ukraine function and work and deliver effect as they're supposed to do. And then there is the flow of supplies, fuel, ammunition, spare parts, that is needed and this huge logistical undertaking is actually now organised by so by SACEUR is responsible but in his capacity as the Supreme US Commander of Europe.

Helene Cooper, NYT Correspondent: They just put this ugly clock up and we are actually already halfway done and I don't understand how that is even remotely possible. But what you just said is the perfect segue to my next question.

Which is that you said in the past that Ukraine's rightful place is in NATO. How do you see that actually happening? And I don't mean militarily, because as you just laid out, the Ukrainians, the Ukrainian military has more than proved itself, very capable. Ukrainian troops have been trained on NATO standard equipment. We just sent nine mechanised brigades, Ukrainian brigades, back to Ukraine for this counter offensive.

And they've shown that they've learned how to do the type of combined arms manoeuvres that the United States military practices, but politically seems is the far bigger issue. How can you lay out the practical pathway for Ukraine to actually get into NATO?

NATO Secretary General: I think I'll just start by meeting that. On that issue, there are different views in the Alliance and of course the only way to make decisions in NATO is by consensus. There are consultations going on now. I will have some phone calls later on today also, on the way forward, the path forward, and how to address the Ukrainian ambitions for NATO membership.

So, no one is able to tell you exactly what will be the final decision at the Vilnius Summit on this issue. But we an Alliance of now 31 Allies and of course, the only way to make decisions is to have discussions, to consult and then at the end of the day, we always end up at a joint position or some kind of consensus.

But having said that, I would like to also highlight the following. We also agree on a lot when it comes to Ukraine and membership. We all agree that Ukraine will become a member of the Alliance. That was actually stated very clearly at the Madrid Summit last year, and has been repeated many times since we made the first decision back in 2008.

We all agree that NATO’s door is open for new members, and that it is for the NATO Allies and Ukraine to decide when they should join not Moscow – they don't have a veto. Then we also agree that the most urgent and important task now is to ensure that Ukraine prevails as a sovereign independent nation. Because if Ukraine doesn't prevail, then there's no membership issue to discuss.

Helene Cooper, NYT Correspondent: Do you think this war makes it easier for Ukraine? To get into NATO then before February 24?

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg: Well, yes or no. I think that everyone realized that to become a member in the midst of war is not on the agenda and that is not the issue. The issue is more what happens when the war ends, in one way or another. And then of course, the war ensures that Ukraine is becoming even closer to NATO, you mentioned all the things we are doing together with them. When we start pilot training, of course, they will be more interoperable, closer to NATO, when they use now more and more NATO equipment and so on. They are coming closer to NATO when it comes to how to operate different NATO systems. So one of the things I actually believe and hope and I think that we will agree in Vilnius, is a multi-year program by NATO and NATO Allies to help Ukraine to transition from Soviet era doctrines, equipment, standards, to NATO doctrines, equipment and standards. This sounds a bit technical, but it is extremely important.

Helene Cooper, NYT Correspondent: But that is already happening anyway.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg: Well it is already happening but it is a huge task. And by agreeing this program, we will then be more ambitious and more concrete on what we are going to do – to not only gradually move them towards NATO standards, because if you look at what they have, it is a lot of old Soviet era stuff both equipment, but also doctrines, and the way of organizing their armed forces. Now they actually live in two worlds: so they have a lot of old stuff, and they have a lot of Soviet stuff, and they have a lot of NATO stuff and they have a lot of different NATO stuff. So to make this more coherent, it is extremely important, and the aim is to make them fully interoperable with NATO forces regardless of when membership will happen. This is good. It will make them more able to protect themselves, so to defend and of course, us more able to work with them, the more they are the same standards, doctrines and procedures.

Helene Cooper, NYT Correspondent: This is the point where I'm supposed to open it up for questions, but I have a couple more. Before I do that, since we only have 10 minutes left, I want to ask you about Donald Trump. You are the consummate diplomat and I watched you during the Trump presidency and you did a really good job every time he started jumping up and down about NATO, European countries not paying their fair share. You used that to try to get European countries to meet the 2% and then you credited him with getting them, getting some countries a little bit more, and getting a sense of urgency on that which was really interesting to watch, as he was also screaming about how he wanted to withdraw from NATO. What I guess would be your advice to your successor, if we end up with a second Trump presidency?

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg: My advice to any Secretary General of NATO is to make sure that we stay together, that the main task the most important thing the head of the North Atlantic Council, which is the Secretary General of NATO, is to keep this family together. And of course that's not all as easy, and it has never been because we are now 31, soon 32 with Sweden, different nations from both sides of the Atlantic with different history, different geographies, different political leaders but we have been able, always, to unite around the core task of protecting and defending each other despite differences. I think that some of those, or  least I have watched this in this series “The Crown” and then one of the episode says about the Suez Crisis with two NATO Allies, France and the United Kingdom went into Egypt without telling the United States. Well, that was in 56. And of course, I think the atmosphere at the NATO meetings were not the best at that time.

Helene Cooper, NYT Correspondent: You are the only person who watched that episode and thought about NATO.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg: But I learned a lot and I used it. I was actually inspired to think that if they managed in 56, I can manage whatever happens now. Then NATO’s headquarters were not in Brussels. It was in Paris. It was in a beautiful picture with a nice view from my office, as Secretary General’s office, of the Eiffel Tower. And then, I don't exactly know what happens but there was something about the relationship between the President Lyndon B. Johnson and De Gaulle, that NATO had to leave. And again, I don't, I'm not saying who was right or who was wrong, but at least we had to leave and we ended up in that old hospital outside of Brussels, as a temporary solution for 50 years.

But then, again, then actually France left the military structures of NATO but NATO survived. And then, the Iraq War and we had half of the Allies who were against and half of the Allies were in favor. So I'm saying this just because it has happened before, it will certainly happen again, that there are disagreements in NATO. And my message to President Trump, as it has been to all other Allies who disagree or have different views, is that okay, these are serious stuff, be it the climate change or the Iran nuclear deal or the Suez Crisis, whatever it has been or will be, but just make sure that you understand that even for the United States, it is very good to have friends and Allies.

Because, you know, a strong NATO is good for Europe but a strong NATO is also very good for the United States because no other major power has so many friends and Allies. Russia, China doesn't have anything like that, and they invited me actually during the Trump years to stick to the joint session of the Congress and my main message was that it is good to have friends. It is quite obvious for me but sometimes it is good to remind we are friends and that worked quite well. Was that funny?

Because the thing is that the United States is concerned about the size of China, because the United States is always used to be the biggest but when it comes to China, they are not always biggest and leading in all areas, but if you add 30 other Allies, big and small, from Iceland and Norway to Germany, and United Kingdom. That is a lot and that makes them, that make us, so NATO in total represent 50% of the world GDP and 50% of the world’s military might. So compared to anyone else, we are big when you have all the friends and Allies in NATO. That's also good for the United States.

Helene Cooper, NYT Correspondent: In my last question, you bring up China. Can China be a credible mediator on Ukraine?

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg: It is for Ukraine to decide because I am just afraid that we now start in a way, in Brussels, at NATO or in the German Marshall Fund to start to tell the Ukrainians what they should do. I think they have proven extremely capable of making their own decision as a sovereign and independent nation. They are paying the price, the highest price. We are, we complain about high energy prices. I understand that because energy prices have been high. We complain about the high inflation and the cost of delivering support to Ukraine. So we pay a price and that is serious and it matters for normal people, working people our countries but the price we pay is measured in money, the price they pay is measured in lost lives.

So I think, I say this because I really believe that it is for the Ukrainians to make the judgments or what are the conditions, what are the frameworks for potential talks and negotiations. I welcome the talk and the phone call between President Xi and President Zelensky, and also the Chinese envoy in Kiev. I totally trust them that they will find out that, what we have told China is of course, that they should condemn the illegal invasion of  Ukraine. They haven't, and of course, they should in no way provide legal support to, or weapons to Russia. And of course, we are concerned when we see more in general that Russia and China are working more and more closely together. But on the role of China. Well, we welcome at first their will to find a solution and it is for Ukraine to decide what are the correct frameworks.

Helene Cooper, NYT Correspondent: Question. We have microphones in the audience. I'm going to start with the lady right there in the cool blue suit. And let's do actually, let's do all three, all four of you because we don't have a lot of time, a question not a statement and a speed round and maybe we do all four. Can you handle all four and then you answer after the four?

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg: I don't know. [inaudible], my capacity is limited but I will try to write them down and let’s see.

Helene Cooper, NYT Correspondent: I think you can, ok.

Question: Yes. [inaudible], European Democracy Youth Network, Ukrainian origin. Something that we have not discussed today: security guarantees or any possibility of that. We have different security frameworks being proposed, like the Kyiv Security Compact or with our UK friends considering providing security guarantees in terms of end of the war. What is your idea? Your opinion? What is realistic from your perspective? And would this be a step towards a NATO membership? Thank you.

Question: Thank you, dear Secretary General, I'm [inaudible] from Georgia and 20% of my country is occupied by Russian. Here, I am as a GMF alumna, and I have a quick question for you. After this Ukrainian war, it was very evident that the countries like Central and Eastern European Europe, they have started thinking of reshaping and establishing an internal and regional organization that will have a better coordinated defense cooperation among them and with an increased Russian propaganda in the region, and especially in Georgia and Russia, abolished visa regime in Georgia and increased flow of Russians within the country. Can you reassure once again, Georgia's membership into NATO and your support towards this process? Because we don't really see, Georgian people does not really see itself as part of small alliances with any countries with so called neighborhoods, in our northern neighbors. Thank you.

Helene Cooper: We have 50 seconds left, so make it fast.

Question: Salome Mgeladze, the Vice President of the European Democracy Youth Network. I am from Georgia as well and yes, 20% of our country is occupied by Russia. With the ongoing war in Ukraine and Russian threat, how could you help to Georgian people to avoid the possible Russian aggression and to move, and to move forward to NATO membership? Slava Ukraini. Thank you.

Question: I’ll make it very short. I am Matthias from the America Europe Youth Forum. I have a very practical question. We have armed Ukraine to a great extent and we see in former battlefields around the world. We have a big problem with unexploded explosive ordnance and weapons that pop up in civilian contexts. So is there a plan of NATO or the Alliance to disarm Ukraine when this conflict ends?

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg: Okay. Thank you. So, first on the issue of security, assurances, arrangements, guarantees. The question you asked. Well, that's partly linked to what we discussed about membership, of course, the ultimate security guarantee will be a NATO membership but as I just described, that's not something that will happen in the midst of a war. The question is, what will we decide on and how will we address the issue of membership at the Vilnius Summit. And as I said, it's too early to say but what we will do most likely is that will agree at least this program of making Ukraine even, coming in more closer to NATO and more interoperable with NATO.

Then, I think wars are, by nature, unpredictable and no one can tell exactly how this war ends or when it ends, but what we do know is that when it ends, it is extremely important to make sure that it doesn't start again, that the pattern of Russian aggressive behavior continues, and the President Putin cannot continue to chip away at European security. That we just pause and then start again. So we need to make sure that we have arrangements in place to deter further Russian aggression. That is partly related to provide military support to Ukraine, to help them deter and defend themselves but that will also open the discussions about different kinds of security arrangements.

As you mentioned, the Kyiv Compact and different kinds of security, bilateral things have been on the table, but it is far too early to conclude exactly and we will have a discussion on the membership as we move towards the NATO Summit. Then, on Georgia and Russia, we have actually two different questions but two questions on Georgia. First on Georgia, I think that Georgia is part of the pattern because it didn't start out as I said, it started in 2014 while the war in Ukraine started in 2014 but Russia's aggressive actions against neighbors didn't start in 2014, at least it started in 2018, sorry 2008, with invasion into Georgia.

So it is this pattern, that is a stark reminder of that, this is not only about this war in Ukraine, it is about that the relationship we tried at the end of the Cold War to build with Russia, a better, friendlier relationship has failed because of Russia's aggressive behavior. They want to re-establish spheres of influence to control neighbors and of course, that's not the world we would like to live in because that means that a lot of neighbors, former Soviet republics and members of the Warsaw Pact, will not have the independence, we strongly believe that all countries should have.

Therefore, NATO has worked with Georgia for many, many years, we have helped to implement reforms, practical, political cooperation. And of course, after the war we have also seen that countries which are neither, which I would call them sometimes “in between”, which is  I think not the best phrase but which are not NATO Allies, but then try to also resist coercion from Russia. They are vulnerable. So we are, we decided at the Madrid Summit to step up what we do for these countries on the verge, Georgia is one of the strongest examples. Having said that, I think also we have to understand that it is important Georgia lives up to the democratic values we all believe in. And of course, we also expect non-NATO Allies to adhere to the sanctions and to not make it easier for Russia to finance and to organise the war of aggression against Ukraine.

Then on the unexploded ordinances, well, that is always an issue after a war, the need to clean up to get rid of those. We have started some discussions about what we will do after the war. It is also part of what we are discussing at NATO, but again, of course, the main issue now is to end the war by ensuring that Ukraine prevails but then after that, there is a huge task of reconstruction, including by removing mines and unexploded ordinances, which will be a big, big task for many countries to take part in.

I'm sorry, I'm not [inaudible] make as many jokes in English as in Norwegian. The only way to solve that is for you to learn Norwegian, so next time.

Helene Cooper: I'm working on it. I'm working on it. Thank you very much, sir. Good luck in Vilnius and thank you.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg: Thank you.