Keynote interview

with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at Reuters Next event

  • 01 Dec. 2021 -
  • |
  • Last updated 06-Dec-2021 09:01

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg participating in the Reuters NEXT Virtual Global Conference

MARK BENDEICH [Global News Editor, Reuters]: Hello, everybody, this is Mark Bendeich, I’m Global News Editor for Reuters. And welcome, Secretary General. It’s been a busy few days. Obviously, I’d like to start with a question about the topic of the hour, which is, frankly, does NATO believe that Russia is about to invade Ukraine?

NATO SECRETARY JENERAL JENS STOLTENBERG: So what we see is a significant Russian build-up, an unusual concentration of forces in and around Ukraine by Russia. We see heightened rhetoric. But of course, there’s no certainty about the intentions. But what we do know is that not only has Russia increased its military presence close to Ukraine’s borders, but we also know that they have used military force against Ukraine before. They did that in 2014, when they invaded and illegally annexed Crimea, which is part of Ukraine. And they continue to support the armed separatists in Donbas in eastern Ukraine. So . . . so, we can hope for the best and call on Russia to not once again use military force against a sovereign independent nation, Ukraine. But we need to be prepared for the worst, and that’s exactly what we are in NATO.

MARK BENDEICH: Mr Putin has just said that the reason . . . he cannot de-escalate and the reason for that is because there are 120,000 or more Ukrainian troops on the other side of the border. Is he right?

NATO SECRETARY JENERAL JENS STOLTENBERG: No, because the whole . . . the whole idea that Ukraine represents a threat to Russia is absolutely wrong. Ukraine has been attacked by Russia. Russia is occupying parts of Ukraine. Crimea is part of the international recognised borders of Ukraine, which also Russia actually subscribed to and signed up to. So there is no doubt that Russia has recognised Crimea as part of Ukraine. And now they have occupied and used military force to grab that part of Ukraine from them and illegally annexed it since 2014. Then Russia continues its aggressive actions against Ukraine with support, military support, to militant separatists in eastern Ukraine, in Donbas. And on top of that, we know that Russia is responsible for aggressive hybrid attacks, cyberattacks against Ukraine. So the whole idea that Ukraine is a threat to Russia is turning the world upside down. It is Russia that, over many years now, has been responsible for many types of aggressive actions against Ukraine.

MARK BENDEICH: Will NATO defend Ukraine in the event of a Russian attack? Surely, Ukraine cannot do that on its own?

NATO SECRETARY JENERAL JENS STOLTENBERG:  NATO is providing support to Ukraine, political support for their territorial integrity and sovereignty, but also practical support with capacity-building – NATO Allies provide training; NATO, for instance, help them with . . . the reason they visited the Naval Academy in Odessa where we have NATO trainers helping them where they build their maritime forces; some NATO Allies provide also equipment and so on. So NATO and NATO Allies provide substantial support to Ukraine, because they have requested support and we are ready to provide them support. Then we also made it very clear that, first of all, this is a Russian military build-up, which is unexplained and unjustified. Therefore, we call on Russia to be transparent, to reduce tensions and to de-escalate. If they do the opposite and actually decide to, once again, use force against Ukraine then we have made it clear and ministers made that clear during the NATO foreign ministerial meeting in Latvia today, that Russia will then have to pay a high price. There will be serious consequences for Russia and that’s a clear message from NATO.

MARK BENDEICH: Under the circumstances, is NATO prepared or planning to boost its cooperation, defence cooperation with Ukraine, for example, sending military hardware into Ukraine?

NATO SECRETARY JENERAL JENS STOLTENBERG: NATO as an Alliance does not possess military hardware or equipment, but NATO Allies do. And NATO Allies provide also support by providing, supplying military equipment hardware, but that’s for the individual Allies to decide. But Allies also at this meeting announced and, of course, said that they are providing support also with equipment to Ukraine. And that’s defensive. That’s because Ukraine has been attacked. That’s because part of Ukraine is under Russian occupation and, again, a sovereign nation like Ukraine has a right to self-defence. It’s enshrined in the UN Charter that self-defence is the right of every sovereign nation and therefore, of course, Ukraine has the right and Ukraine has also the right to ask for help and support.

MARK BENDEICH: What are the Ministers talking about? Things like missiles, drones, what kind of equipment?

NATO SECRETARY JENERAL JENS STOLTENBERG: I will not go into the specific types of equipment. But . . . but it is also publicly known that Allies provide support also with equipment to Ukraine. And again, this is defensive. It’s absolutely in line with Ukraine’s and all NATO Allies’ international obligations. And it’s something which is actually triggered by the use of force by Russia against Ukraine.

MARK BENDEICH: President Putin’s been quite candid about moving troops around his own soil, but what has NATO seen? What evidence has NATO got of truly extraordinary manoeuvres or developments since what we saw earlier this year? For instance, they would talk about a call-up of reservists – I’m not sure we’ve seen that. Talk about night manoeuvres. Can you give us any concrete evidence, satellite imagery, anything to show us exactly what you’re referring to when you talk about Russian aggression and build-up?

NATO SECRETARY JENERAL JENS STOLTENBERG: Well, we are now very closely monitoring what Russia does and . . . and from several Allies we have very precise intelligence. I cannot go into the details. But what we see is heavy weapons. We see armoured units. We see drones. We see thousands . . . obviously, artillery. We see thousands of combat-ready troops. And we also see electronic warfare systems. And this is the second time this year that we see an unusual concentration of Russian forces, both within Ukraine – , Crimea, which is part of Ukraine – and also along the borders between Russia and Ukraine. We are not saying that there is any certainty about the Russian intentions, but we are saying that when . . . when Russia, that has actually invaded and used force against Ukraine before, concentrates forces, combat-ready troops, close to the borders of Ukraine and we also see a significant increase in aggressive rhetoric, including on social media, it will be irresponsible to rule out the possibility that Russia wants again to use force. We . . . we call on them to not do that. But we need also to be realistic and realise that that’s absolutely a possibility.

MARK BENDEICH: You’ve said that Russia would pay a high price if it made a move on Ukraine. There are discussions in Riga this week about sanctions. What sanctions are the Allies talking about? And are you preparing to announce something this week?

NATO SECRETARY JENERAL JENS STOLTENBERG: So NATO is an important platform to coordinate, to discuss, to consult amongst Allies, also on sanctions. And NATO Allies have demonstrated before and actually demonstrate now that we are able to impose a heavy economic costs on Russia. So of course, the issues of the potential options are many. But . . . but this can be economic sanctions, it can be financial sanctions, it can be political restrictions and also, as we saw after the illegal annexation of Crimea, that actually triggered the biggest reinforcement of NATO’s collective defence in a generation, since the end of the Cold War with the combat-ready battle groups in the Baltic region and in Poland; with increased presence in the Black Sea Region; and we have increased our presence in air, on land and at sea, as a direct consequence of the aggressive actions by Russia against Ukraine. So all these options are on the table and of course, we need to provide support to Ukraine, and Allies do that. But we also need to remove any room for miscalculation or misunderstanding about NATO’s resolve and commitment to protect and defend all Allies. And that’s the reason why we have increased our presence in the eastern part of the Alliance.

MARK BENDEICH: Presumably you’re talking about sanctions as a deterrent. So are you planning or are NATO Allies planning to make an announcement on sanctions to outline what President Putin would face? Are you planning to announce that this week?

NATO SECRETARY JENERAL JENS STOLTENBERG: So first of all, Allies and NATO, we all have made it very clear that there will be a high price to pay and sanctions is one of the options. So I think it’s quite obvious that Russia already knows that they will pay a high price. And they have seen also that Allies implemented severe sanctions and also that NATO responded by strengthening defensive measures of NATO Allied countries in the Black Sea and the Baltic region. Exactly when we will announce what, I will not go into the details about that. And it is for individual Allies and the European Union to make decisions on sanctions. But NATO is a valuable and important platform where Allies consult and coordinate, because we represent together 50 percent of the world’s GDP. So, of course, when NATO Allies act together on these issues, it really makes a difference.

MARK BENDEICH: Mr Stoltenberg, is it time to talk? Is it time? Would you welcome another sit down between presidents Putin and Biden?

NATO SECRETARY JENERAL JENS STOLTENBERG: So NATO believe in dialogue with Russia and we welcome that there are direct contacts between the United States and Russia. And NATO’s also ready to talk, as an Alliance, to Russia. We have lines of military communication. I meet regularly with Foreign Minister Lavrov, but . . . but the institutionalised cooperation between NATO and Russia has been suspended by Russia, not by NATO. Because we stand ready. We have an offer on the table to sit down in the NATO-Russia Council, which is a council we have established to actually have consultations, talks with Russia, dialogue. But Russia has not responded. And Russia has actually cut off all diplomatic ties with NATO. We regret that and we call on Russia to re-engage in dialogue, because we believe that dialogue, especially when times are difficult as they are now, that dialogue is important. We need dialogue with Russia. Russia is our neighbour and we need, partly, to strive for a better relationship, but even without a better relationship in the foreseeable future, we need to manage a difficult relationship. And that’s also a reason why we need to sit down with Russia. Arms control, transparency, risk-reduction mechanisms to prevent incidents and accidents. And at least if incidents or accidents happen, that we prevent them from spiralling out of control. And this is important, especially when times are difficult as they are now.

MARK BENDEICH: President Putin has spoken of increased NATO activities in the Black Sea and has called them ‘a provocation’. Has he got a point?

NATO SECRETARY JENERAL JENS STOLTENBERG: No.  NATO is a defensive alliance. NATO is operating in international waters and everything we do is in line with our international obligations and we are transparent. There are international agreements, for instance, something called the Vienna Document about how to notify exercises, how to invite observers into . . . to observe exercises, to be transparent. NATO always does that,  respect those international regulations. Russia has not one single time invited NATO Allies into what we call mandatory observation of exercises. So, of course, every country, Russia, but also, of course, NATO-Allied countries. We have the right to exercise our own forces on our own territory. The problem with Russia is that they are not transparent, that they have a very aggressive rhetoric, and that they have a track record showing that they have used military exercises before as a disguise for aggressive actions against neighbours. So that makes it a very different case than when countries exercise their forces in the normal way, in a transparent way on their own territory.

MARK BENDEICH: And Secretary General is NATO also talking about sanctions, this week, NATO Allies, about sanctions against Belarus? Obviously NATO and the EU have called what’s happening on the border with Belarus and Poland as hybrid warfare. And President Lukashenko, the Belarussian leader Lukashenko, has also talked about cutting off gas and even stationing nuclear weapons on his soil if NATO were to do the same in Poland?

NATO SECRETARY JENERAL JENS STOLTENBERG: So, first of all, we have no plans of stationing any nuclear weapons in any other countries than we already have these nuclear weapons as part of our deterrence and that has been there for many, many years, and they have been there for many, many years. Second, NATO and the European Union are working very closely on addressing the unacceptable behaviour of the Lukashenko regime. The Lukashenko regime is using vulnerable people, migrants, as pawns as . . . as a tool to put pressure on neighbouring countries, NATO Allies and also EU members, Poland, Latvia and Lithuania. And this is a cynical way of using vulnerable people in a political game. NATO stands in full solidarity with the countries most affected. We have been in contact with some of the countries of origin and some of the transit countries to reduce the pressure and the number of people and migrants coming to the border of Belarus and also travelled, this weekend on Sunday, with the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, to Lithuania and to Latvia, two of the border countries with Belarus. And there we demonstrated the unity and the resolve and the strong and close cooperation between the European Union and NATO in addressing these . . . we call them hybrid tactics of Belarus, or the Lukashenko regime, against its neighbours. And also NATO has also provided some practical support: we sent in some experts to Lithuania recently to help them to deal with the situation at the border. 

MARK BENDEICH: So no talk of sanctions against Belarus just yet among NATO Allies? 

NATO SECRETARY JENERAL JENS STOLTENBERG: Well, there are sanctions against Belarus because of the behaviour that the regime has conducted.

MARK BENDEICH: Traditional sanctions, yeah.

NATO SECRETARY JENERAL JENS STOLTENBERG: Well, we . . . NATO Allies will always assess and . . . and consult on the need for . . . for more measures. So even though NATO’s not making those decisions formally, of course Allies are involved in consultations also on that.

MARK BENDEICH: OK. I think we’ve only got just a few minutes left. I just want to put two more questions to you. One is: actually, your mandate is due to expire next year. Do you think it will be time, then, for a woman to lead NATO?

NATO SECRETARY JENERAL JENS STOLTENBERG: I have to make many decisions as Secretary General of NATO and I’m totally focused on my task as Secretary General of NATO now. And . . . but one of the few . . . one of the decisions I’m not going to make and not be involved in is who’s going to be my successor.

MARK BENDEICH: OK, you don’t have a personal view?

NATO SECRETARY JENERAL JENS STOLTENBERG: But you know, when you are Secretary General of NATO you don’t have personal views on those issues. 

MARK BENDEICH: OK, very quickly, we’ve only got just a minute, but China and Russia have both tested hypersonic weapons. Is this really threatening to overtake NATO air defences?

NATO SECRETARY JENERAL JENS STOLTENBERG: It’s something we have to take very seriously because both Russia and China are now investing in new, very advanced weapon systems, hypersonic glide vehicles – extremely long range, high speed, manoeuvrable. So of course, this really demonstrates that both Russia, but also China now, invest heavily also in nuclear-capable systems that can reach all NATO countries. That’s the case for the Russian systems, but also for the Chinese systems. And if anything, that just makes it even more important that we stand together 30 Allies, North America and Europe together, in strategic solidarity in NATO.

MARK BENDEICH: Thank you very much.

NATO SECRETARY JENERAL JENS STOLTENBERG: And we are working on that as Allies now.

MARK BENDEICH: Thank you very much, Secretary General for being with us with Reuters Next. Thank you.