Brussels, 24 December 2021 (dpa/MIA) – Fears of a major conflict in Europe are running high for the first time in many years as tensions mount over Russia’s military build-up near Ukraine’s border.
Can NATO reduce the threat by making concessions to Russia? In an interview with dpa, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, 62, showed a willingness to talk but made it clear there would be no compromises on basic principles.
dpa: Secretary General – Christmas and New Year are just around the corner. Are you expecting peaceful holidays or does NATO have any information that the feared Russian attack on Ukraine could soon take place?
Stoltenberg: We hope for a peaceful holiday for everyone. At the same time, we need to be prepared and therefore we have increased our vigilance. We are monitoring very closely the Russian build-up in and around Ukraine. We have seen over some time a gradual and significant Russian military build-up with armoured units, with battle tanks, with drones, with tens of thousands of combat troops. We have seen an aggressive rhetoric from the Russian side and we know the track record of Russia. They have used force against Ukraine before, illegally annexing Crimea, and continuing to destabilize eastern Ukraine. But there is uncertainty about the Russian intentions. But let me also underline that we don’t see any imminent threat against NATO allies.
dpa: Are we already talking about more than 100,000 troops?
Stoltenberg: I will not go into the details about the intelligence. But it is a significant military build-up and there are no signs that this is stopping or slowing down. On the contrary, it continues. So therefore, Russia has the possibility to ensure that it is a peaceful and restful Christmas for all of us by reducing tensions and withdrawing their forces. It is clear that Russia is the aggressor, not Ukraine.
dpa: The Russian troop deployment on the border with Ukraine is accompanied by demands on NATO. President Vladimir Putin demands new security guarantees and, among other things, that Ukraine should never join NATO, that no permanent NATO forces or infrastructure be placed on Ukrainian soil, that the West end all military assistance to Ukraine, and that all military exercises on Russia’s periphery cease. Would you be willing to make concessions if they averted a major war in Ukraine?
Stoltenberg: We are ready to sit down with Russia in the NATO-Russia Council (NRC) and we are ready to talk. That is why I intend to call a meeting of the NRC as soon as possible in the New Year. But we will not compromise on core principles. We can’t compromise on NATO’s right to protect and defend all allies, and we cannot compromise on the core principle of every nation’s right to choose its own path. This is about respecting the sovereignty of also smaller nations. The whole idea that a big power like Russia can decide what smaller neighbours can or cannot do is to reintroduce this idea of spheres of influence, which is absolutely against everything that has ensured peace and stability in Europe since the end of the Cold War.
dpa: In Russia, the view is that NATO has broken promises by expanding eastward. As evidence, Russia cites statements made by former NATO Secretary General Manfred Woerner, for example. He said in 1990, “The very fact that we are ready not to deploy NATO troops beyond the territory of the Federal Republic [of Germany] gives the Soviet Union firm security guarantees.” And there were similar comments by politicians like former US Secretary of State James Baker or former German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher. Even if these statements were not binding from the point of view of international law – doesn’t Russia have a point here?
Stoltenberg: NATO has never made the promise to not enlarge. Actually, it is in the founding treaty of our organization that any European country can become a member of the alliance. Second, there are documents dating back from the 70s, the 90s – the Helsinki Final Act, the Paris Charter, the NATO-Russia founding act and many other treaties – which make clear that countries have the right to choose their own path. This is a fundamental principle of European security, and one that Russia has also subscribed to. That’s not something that we can change through some quotes. And allies strongly deny that they ever promised anything like that. Former President Gorbachev himself said the subject of NATO enlargement never came up ahead of German reunification.
dpa: One last question about the deployment of Russian troops: You said that you currently see no immediate threat to NATO countries. But doesn’t NATO have to react to the troop deployment anyway? For example, by stationing more troops in the eastern part of the alliance?
Stoltenberg: We will constantly assess whether there is a need to further adjust our posture. I would be careful speculating about that now because that can only raise tensions. I think the important thing is to try to reduce tensions and to establish a meaningful dialogue with Russia without compromising on the right and the responsibility to protect and defend our allies.
dpa: Another issue – the decision by the US and NATO to withdraw from Afghanistan had dramatic consequences. The Taliban were able to take power, and now the country faces a humanitarian disaster. The country is in its worst food crisis on record, more than 97 per cent of Afghans are predicted to sink below the poverty line by mid-next year. What is NATO doing to minimize the suffering of the population?
Stoltenberg: I am deeply concerned about the humanitarian situation, especially as we now are going into winter time. NATO’s allies have over two decades made massive investments in Afghanistan and helping to improve the living conditions of millions of Afghans and to fight international terrorism. But since NATO has ended its military presence in Afghanistan I find it natural that Germany or Norway or other NATO allies use the development aid and relief channels to direct support.
dpa: Can NATO as an organization do anything?
Stoltenberg: Of course, NATO is a platform where NATO allies discuss and raise these issues. And we have, of course, addressed the severe humanitarian situation in Afghanistan. And then I and other leaders have appealed to NATO allies to provide support through the UN development aid agencies and different international relief organizations. So, NATO is the platform to coordinate and to express appeals to NATO allies to use different international mechanisms to help the Afghan people.
dpa: Your current mandate ends at the end of September and it has recently been announced that you have applied for the position of head of the Norwegian central bank. Does that mean that a third extension of NATO’s contract is definitely ruled out?
Stoltenberg: I am focused on one thing and that is my task here as secretary general at NATO. We live in very challenging times with the troublesome and difficult situation we see around Ukraine, which is my main challenge or my main focus now. My term ends on September 30 and I will stay here until then.
dpa: So it’s not a no…
Stoltenberg: For me, I don’t want to speculate. I am focused on the work I have, on the task I have.