NATO’s Stoltenberg: Ukraine’s Gains Are ‘Extremely Encouraging’

The trans-Atlantic alliance chief discusses Russia’s war in Ukraine and competing with China.

By , the editor in chief of Foreign Policy.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg NATO

In just the past week, Ukraine’s military has liberated some 2,400 square miles of territory captured by Russian forces since the war began in February. These gains—the most tangible turning point in the war so far—are in part due to prolific support from NATO, the military alliance between 28 European countries plus Canada and the United States.

NATO’s support, however, raises several questions. How long can these 30 democracies—each with their own internal domestic concerns and economic pressures—continue to arm and assist Ukraine? How can NATO continue to repel Russian cyberattacks and other threats? And in the longer term, in light of the meeting this week between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, how does NATO prepare for a growing challenge from Beijing?

I put those questions, among others, to NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who has headed the alliance since 2014 and was previously prime minister of Norway. Subscribers can watch the complete 30-minute FP Live discussion on video by clicking here. What follows is a condensed and edited transcript.

In just the past week, Ukraine’s military has liberated some 2,400 square miles of territory captured by Russian forces since the war began in February. These gains—the most tangible turning point in the war so far—are in part due to prolific support from NATO, the military alliance between 28 European countries plus Canada and the United States.

NATO’s support, however, raises several questions. How long can these 30 democracies—each with their own internal domestic concerns and economic pressures—continue to arm and assist Ukraine? How can NATO continue to repel Russian cyberattacks and other threats? And in the longer term, in light of the meeting this week between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, how does NATO prepare for a growing challenge from Beijing?

I put those questions, among others, to NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who has headed the alliance since 2014 and was previously prime minister of Norway. Subscribers can watch the complete 30-minute FP Live discussion on video by clicking here. What follows is a condensed and edited transcript.

Foreign Policy: Let’s start with the news from the last week. What do Ukraine’s recent territorial gains mean for the trajectory of the conflict in the coming weeks and months?

Jens Stoltenberg: The gains the Ukrainians have made over the last weeks are extremely encouraging because it proves that Ukraine has the capability to liberate occupied territory. This is a great recognition of the strength of the Ukrainian Armed Forces—of their courage, their bravery, their skills, and their determination. It has boosted morale throughout Ukraine. Of course, these advances are not only due to their own courage but also the fact that NATO’s allies and partners have provided unprecedented support with ammunition, weapons, and different capabilities over months. This is now making a difference on the battlefield every day. At the same time, we need to realize that the war is not over. Russia still controls roughly 20 percent of Ukraine’s territory, and Russia still has substantial military powers. Moscow can mobilize even more. We need to continue to provide support to Ukraine and be prepared for the long haul.

FP: Indeed. But the war began in February. Ukraine’s recent gains beg the question: Why did it take so long to supply Kyiv with rocket launcher systems?

JS: I think we need to realize that all wars are very unpredictable. We were very precise in predicting the invasion. When the invasion happened, we reacted immediately. After the invasion, we further increased our presence with more troops and also with more naval and air power to send a clear message to Russia that we are there to protect every inch of NATO’s territory and enable NATO’s allies to do what they do to provide support to Ukraine. The type of capabilities and weapons we are delivering has been evolving. Our allies have stepped up and are doing more.

FP: Given the level of involvement among NATO’s allies in this war, is there a sense of regret that perhaps Ukraine could have been admitted into NATO a year ago or two years ago to prevent this war from happening?

JS: NATO’s alliance of democracies makes decisions by consensus. All our allies need to agree. And we made a decision that Ukraine will become a member of NATO back in 2008. But allies have had different views on when Ukraine should become a member. And what we have agreed on is the need to support and help Ukraine, and NATO allies have supported and helped since 2014. NATO helped to modernize the Ukrainian Armed Forces so that their armed forces are much bigger, much stronger, much better equipped, much better trained. And so the focus now is on enabling the Ukrainians to defend themselves. The issue of NATO membership is something we need to address when we are in a more stable situation.

FP: NATO is heavily reliant on American support. And given that’s the case, I have to ask, how worried are you about a win for Republican candidates backed by former U.S. President Donald Trump in the upcoming midterm elections?

JS: It’s not for NATO or for me to go into domestic discussions on elections in different countries. But I’m confident that all NATO allies, including the United States, are ready to continue to provide support to Ukraine. This is a moral responsibility, but it’s also about our own security interests because if we allow Putin to win in Ukraine, it’s not only bad for Ukrainians but the security of all their allies will be worse off. That’s dangerous for all of us.

FP: My question was more hypothetical. Were America to reduce its levels of support, would that be damaging for NATO’s support of Ukraine right now?

JS: Yes, of course, because the United States is so important. A reduction of U.S. support will be very negative for the efforts of all of us to provide support to Ukraine and to uphold or to prevent Putin from winning.

FP: There’s a school of thought that goes that Putin is essentially betting that he can wait Europe out. Winter will be tough, gas prices will rise, and so on. What other cards do you expect Putin to play over the next several months to regain control of the war? What are you preparing for?

JS: We are monitoring very closely Russia’s behavior, especially when it comes to those countries in Europe which are not NATO members but close partners, such as Georgia, Moldova, and some of the Western Balkan countries. At the same time, I think we also have to recognize that with more than 80 percent of Russia’s land forces now committed to the operation in Ukraine, they have limited scope for going into another country. What we have to be prepared for is more Russian cyberattacks, disinformation, and other ways of trying to undermine the unity of NATO and our partners.

FP: NATO named China as a strategic threat for the first time this year. Can you explain why? There are critics who will say that this designation benefited America much more than it did European countries. Is that right?

JS: China is a challenge to our values, to our security, and to our interests. But at the same time, we are ready to engage with China on issues of common interest—for instance, arms control and climate change. But you are right that the fact that NATO is addressing China in its documents is something new. We didn’t do that before, but that reflects that the global balance of power is shifting. China’s economic and military strength is important for the whole alliance—and also for Europe.

FP: Doesn’t that change the nature of what NATO was founded for? How would European members of NATO react to, for example, Chinese aggression on Taiwan, then? Could NATO’s Article 5 get triggered outside of the European theater?

JS: It doesn’t change the fundamental purpose of NATO, which is to preserve peace through collective defense and through security guarantees. An attack on one NATO ally will be regarded as an attack on the whole alliance. And by doing that, we are preventing any attack on NATO allies. NATO’s there not to provoke a conflict but to prevent the conflict by having constant support and credible deterrence and defense.

But, of course, we do these things in a different world than we did when NATO was founded in 1949 and throughout the Cold War. NATO’s been on the forefront in the fight against terrorism that has led to NATO’s presence in Asia, in Afghanistan. It’s nothing new. What is new is the security reality we have to take into account as an alliance is China. They are investing heavily in new modern military capabilities. They will most likely soon have a thousand nuclear weapons. Advanced weapons. They are modernizing their army. And China’s coming closer to us. We see them in the Arctic, in Africa. We see them trying to control critical infrastructure. NATO remains an alliance of North America and Europe, but to protect this region, we need to face global threats and challenges. And China is a challenge to our security.

FP: Circling back to the war at hand, is there a concern that NATO allies are running out of military equipment and munitions to send into Ukraine? And if that is a concern, what’s your plan for backfilling militaries to make up for all the material that’s been sent in over the past six months?

JS: There was an urgent need to provide support to Ukraine. And allies have done that in a way we had never seen before. This is now key to the progress Ukraine is making on the battlefield. The only way to do that was to reduce existing stocks. But, of course, those stocks need to be replenished. NATO is now working closely with the defense industry to ramp up production to enable us to continue to provide support to Ukraine—but also to replenish stocks. Yes, we are focused on that.

FP: There are several different ideas for what NATO could become, as our columnist Stephen M. Walt has written. It could keep on keeping on as is, Europe could take on more responsibility, or the alliance could focus more on the Asia-Pacific region. What is your assessment of the best model for what NATO should become in the future?

JS: NATO is the most successful alliance in history because of two things. First, our unity, the fact that we have been able to bring Europe and North America together. If we are divided, we are weak and vulnerable, and there are a lot of risks that we are not able to face alone. But we are able to face them together. Together, we represent 50 percent of the world’s military might. I don’t believe in Europe alone. I believe in Europe and North America together.

The second reason why we are the most successful alliance in history is our ability to change when the world changes. For 40 years, we deterred the Soviet Union. Then the Cold War ended, and we addressed other threats and challenges: the Western Balkans, the fight against terrorism, cyber, all the other threats and challenges that have evolved over the last years. We will remain an alliance of North America and Europe, but we need to take into account the fact that China might disrupt security. And that is reflected in the decisions we made at NATO’s Madrid summit.

Ravi Agrawal is the editor in chief of Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RaviReports

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