Transcript: NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg on Russian aggression, Ukraine’s capabilities, and expanding the Alliance

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Jens Stoltenberg
NATO Secretary General

Frederick Kempe
President and CEO, Atlantic Council

Margaret Brennan
Moderator, “Face the Nation with Margaret Brennan” and Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent, CBS News

FREDERICK KEMPE: Good morning, from Washington, DC. Good afternoon to all our viewers in Europe. And hello to viewers all over the world. I’m Fred Kempe, president and CEO of the Atlantic Council. I’m pleased to welcome you to today’s edition of Atlantic Council Front Page, our premier platform for global leaders tackling the challenges of our times.

Today’s Atlantic Council Front Page is a particularly timely and significant one. We are joined by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg from the alliance’s headquarters in Brussels. This is the secretary general’s first live interview since NATO and the United States delivered their written responses to Moscow’s security demands of December, as he leads the alliance through one of the most perilous moments in recent history.

Secretary General Stoltenberg, we are honored, as always, to welcome you back to the Atlantic Council, NATO’s home in Washington, DC. The specter of a major conflict in Europe is more present today than it has been at any time since the end of the Cold War. The Russian buildup of forces on Ukraine’s borders is a threat not only to the territorial integrity of that country; it is a direct assault on international norms of national sovereignty and self-determination. The stakes are generational. At this crucial moment we are eager to hear the secretary general’s perspective on this Kremlin-generated crisis in Ukraine, how NATO is responding, the implications for the new NATO strategic concept, and what is next for the alliance itself.

To moderate today’s discussion we are delighted to welcome Margaret Brennan, CBS News exceptional chief foreign affairs correspondent and the moderator of “Face the Nation.”

To our audience, thank you all for joining us from all over the world for this important discussion. Today’s event is a continuation of the robust and multifaceted Atlantic Council coverage of the crisis. Please visit our website,, for expert analysis and breaking commentary.

We are broadcasting live on Zoom as well as the Council’s website, YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook accounts. I encourage all of you watching to join the conversation on social media using the hashtag #ACFrontPage and hashtag #NATO.

And now, Margaret, over to you.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Thank you so much, Fred, and good morning to everyone watching here stateside.

Good afternoon to you, Mr. Secretary General. I don’t really need to introduce you but, of course, for anyone watching, Jens Stoltenberg is the secretary general of NATO and has been since October 2014, following a distinguished international and domestic career, including as prime minister of Norway and UN special envoy on climate change.

But now I would say, Mr. Secretary, you have a tremendous challenge in front of you at this moment. We have heard from Russia in their public communications so far that what NATO and the United States put on the table did not address their chief security concerns. Russia’s forces continue to build in the region. At this point, can NATO deter a Russian invasion of Ukraine or is your aim, simply, to contain the conflict from becoming a regional war?

SECRETARY GENERAL JENS STOLTENBERG: Our aim is, of course, to convey a clear message to Russia And that’s exactly what we’re doing, that if they use military force against Ukraine it will have severe consequences.

NATO allies are ready to impose heavy economic sanctions—political, financial sanctions. NATO provides support to Ukraine. We help Ukraine with modernizing their defense and security institutions and NATO allies provide training in this equipment. So Ukraine can also impose costs on Russia if they, once again, invade Ukraine.

And then, thirdly, and most importantly for NATO allies, is that, of course, we are also ready to step up, as we actually now do, our military presence in the eastern part of the alliance to prevent any misunderstanding or room for miscalculation about NATO’s ability and readiness to protect and defend all allies.

So we are doing three things. We are sending a message of sanctions—high price to pay—we are supporting Ukraine, and we are, of course, also conveying absolute and unwavering commitment to all NATO allies.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But have you seen any concrete indication to date that Russia is backing down?

SECRETARY GENERAL JENS STOLTENBERG: What we have seen is a continued military buildup by Russia and, of course, that is something we follow very closely. They are deploying more troops, more heavy equipment, and now also thousands of combat troops to Belarus also with aircraft, helicopters, and advanced weapon systems—S-400 and other weapon systems—into Belarus. So that military buildup continues.

At the same time, Russia was willing to meet us—the United States and the NATO allies—a couple of weeks ago, and that’s a good sign that we sat down in the same room and for hours addressed the situation in and around Ukraine and the security consequences for all of us and for Europe, but also that we have now conveyed our written proposals, how we believe it’s possible to find common ground on everything from arms control to transparency of military activities to more lines of communications between NATO allies and Russia.

And now Russia has to assess these proposals, and we are ready to sit down and then—sit down with them when they are ready to continue the efforts to find a diplomatic political solution.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Ukraine’s foreign minister said today they believe they could take the next two weeks to continue talking. Do you think you have that kind of time?

SECRETARY GENERAL JENS STOLTENBERG: So we have that time as long as Russia does not, once again, decide to use military force. There’s no certainty—

MARGARET BRENNAN: You don’t see that as imminent?

SECRETARY GENERAL JENS STOLTENBERG: Well, there’s no certainty about the Russian plans, and maybe they have not made any final decision. From the NATO side, we are ready to engage in political dialogue but we’re also ready to respond if Russia chooses an armed conflict, a confrontation. So we are ready for both options. We are working hard for the best peaceful political solution, but we’re also prepared for the worst: Russia, once again, using force against a neighbor, Ukraine.

MARGARET BRENNAN: In terms of preparing for the worst, you said earlier this week that the NATO Response Force, which is a force of about five thousand, could be deployed within days. Given the wide array of potential actions that Russia could take, exactly what is the threshold for their deployment? Have the allies agreed on exactly what would trigger that?

SECRETARY GENERAL JENS STOLTENBERG: First of all, the NATO Response Force is only one of the elements in what we do to provide credible deterrence and defense to all NATO allies, and especially those allies in the east of the alliance. We have already, after Russia used force against Ukraine in 2014, for the first time in our history deployed combat-ready battle groups, NATO battle groups, in the eastern part of the alliance in the Baltic countries and Poland. We have air policing, both in the Black Sea region and in the Baltic region. We have a more naval presence, and over the last weeks we have actually stepped up the number of planes and ships in these different missions. Then we have the NATO Response Force. The total amount of troops there is around forty thousand, but the lead element of the NATO Response Force is exact, as you say, around five thousand.

That’s a political decision. We will assess. We will make our decisions when see a need to further increase the presence in the east, either by deploying the whole or elements of the NATO Response Force, depending on what the situation is, and/or also—we’re also considering to deploy or to have battle groups, not only the Baltic countries and in Poland, as we have now, but also France, the United Kingdom, and other allies have also indicated a willingness to have similar battle groups in the Black Sea region under NATO command as part of a NATO presence.

Then we also have—for instance, now we have—for the first time in decades we have a US aircraft carrier under NATO command, and we have more naval and air assets in the region available if needed.

MARGARET BRENNAN: If needed. In terms of that quick response, the response force you talked about, the five thousand: It’s currently led by France, along with allied troops in it. France is three months away from a presidential election. Are you concerned that politics will complicate the willingness to respond? You said it’s a political decision to take the vote to deploy them. Are you concerned?

SECRETARY GENERAL JENS STOLTENBERG: So France is a very committed NATO ally. France has high-end capabilities. France has also demonstrated over many years the ability to also deploy forces, if needed, and to engage in difficult conflicts and address many challenging situations. So I’m absolutely confident that France, but also the other allies in the lead elements we call the VJTF, the lead elements of the NATO Response Force, will be ready to deploy, if needed. But we are, at the same time, pursuing the diplomatic track because the best solution will be to prevent any intervention into Ukraine—

MARGARET BRENNAN: Of course. Of course.

SECRETARY GENERAL JENS STOLTENBERG:—and therefore, we are sending the strong messages of severe consequences are a high price to pay for Russia, but also the fact that we have now seen an increased support to Ukraine. Canada just announced, for example, more trainers to Ukraine. So the Ukrainian troops, the Ukrainian army, is much better trained, much better equipped, and much more ready now than they were in 2014. And of course, that really imposes costs on Russia, if they decide to move into Ukraine once again.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Right, for Ukraine to defend itself. But as you know, I mean, diplomacy’s most powerful when there’s a credible use of force behind it, so that’s why I’m asking you about that decision. I mean, if it has to be put to a vote among allies, are you confident? Do you know what that threshold is that would get all allies to agree to use that response force?

SECRETARY GENERAL JENS STOLTENBERG: But we will never give any potential adversary the kind of—the privilege of defining exactly the threshold what we will do, is that we will always be sure that we have the necessary forces in the right place at the right time to defend and protect all allies, and we have done that for more than seventy years. And the success of NATO, the strongest alliance in history, is that by standing together based on the principle an attack on one ally will trigger the response from the whole alliance—one for all, all for one—we have been able to preserve peace, to prevent any attack. And I’m absolutely certain that we will be able to do that also in the future with the NATO Response Force, but also with the forces we already have in the eastern part of the alliance, the increased naval and the—and the—and air presence, and of course also the fact that the United States has, over—in the last months and years increased its military presence in Europe, which is adding up to the total strength of NATO in Europe.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, President Biden also, as you know, put on notice that 8,500—those 8,500 US.troops. But as was made clear at the State Department yesterday, the US can sometimes move more quickly, according to the State Department, and that’s why the US is talking to countries about unilaterally sending in troops to NATO’s eastern flank. So doesn’t this send the message that America is looked to be that first quick-reaction force rather than NATO? Does—do you support this kind of unilateral action?

SECRETARY GENERAL JENS STOLTENBERG: But the strength of NATO is that we bring thirty allies together and we coordinate their efforts, and sometimes we do this—they do that in their national capabilities on bilateral, as I say, agreements. Sometimes this is done within the NATO framework, but still we speak about NATO allies protecting each other.

NATO is already in the region. We already have assets, both on the ground in the Black Sea region and the Baltic region. We have air and sea capabilities there with standing NATO naval forces that have now actually received more ships from Spain, from Denmark; planes from the Netherlands, also from Denmark and other countries. So NATO is already there.

We have the hybrid force that can be deployed within days. We have actually increased the readiness levels of NATO’s response force, the lead elements. We did that several weeks ago, so they are prepared to deploy quickly. And then on top of that, we have national capabilities not only from the United States, but also from other allies. And—

MARGARET BRENNAN: So are you saying—are you saying that Romania and other countries that the United States is talking to do not need this unilateral support from the United States? That NATO forces are sufficient at present?

SECRETARY GENERAL JENS STOLTENBERG: I’m saying that we are coordinating closely what to do as NATO, and what individual NATO allies do together with all the NATO allies. And the most important thing is that the totality of that delivers the necessary deterrence and defense. We will, of course, constantly assess the need to adjust our presence, also in the Black Sea region. We have already increased our presence in the Black Sea region over the last days and weeks. We have increased the readiness of our forces that can quickly move into the region if they’re needed. And then on top of that, we have allies like France, like the United Kingdom, but also United States looking into adding more national forces. But also they can—often the initial deployments come under NATO command.

So we are coordinating very closely all allies, both the things we do together as allies and the things we do on the bilateral level. And the US aircraft carrier, which originally was under US command is now under NATO command. But the reality is that we speak about the same capabilities, the same countries. And the most important thing is that we have those capabilities.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But, as you know, Mr. Secretary General, there’s been a lot of reporting about differences of opinion among allies, particularly the willingness of France, the willingness of Germany to use force in the same way that the United States and the United Kingdom might be more willing to act. So do you believe that you have—you can deal with those kind of divisions and that you have agreements? Even if you don’t want to spell them out to us today, but agreements on what the threshold for action would be?

SECRETARY GENERAL JENS STOLTENBERG: Well, I think we need to understand that these troops that we deploy in Romania—and we already have troops in Romania, in the Black Sea region, in the Baltic region—they are there to defend NATO allies. And that—and that’s an absolute hundred-percent guarantee from all allies, including, of course, Germany and France.

Germany actually leads all of the battlegroups in the Baltic region, the battlegroup we have in Lithuania. So there’s no way Germany cannot be a part of that, because they’re already there. And France is also part of our deployment in the eastern part of the alliance. And France is then now considering to add more troops. This is about defending NATO allies. And Article 5, the commitment to defend all allies—one for all, all for one—that’s enshrined in our founding treaty as something we have been committed to, all of us, for more than seventy years.

Then there is another issue that’s also important, but another issue. That is what kind of support do you provide to Ukraine, which is not a NATO ally, but a highly valued NATO partner. There, there are some differences between allies, I don’t—I don’t—I don’t try to hide that. But that’s a very different thing than the commitment to protect and defend all allies. So when you speak about the NATO response force, the NATO battlegroups, the increased air and sea presence in the standing naval forces, that’s about defending NATO territory. Hundred percent agreement, no doubt.

When it comes to what kind of support we should provide to a partner, Ukraine, yes, there are some differences. Some are not ready to provide, for instance, lethal aid or military equipment. So NATO provides something as an alliance, capacity building, cyber, helping them to modernize their security institutions, share information, and so on. And then some other allies, especially the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, are also providing trainers, defensive weapon systems, and so on to Ukraine. But I think it’s important to distinguish those two tasks. Support to Ukraine, yes, important. The commitment to protect and defend allies, that’s our core task, and it’s absolute commitment from all allies. And Germany and France is part of that.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But what I hear you saying there is that the intention of a deployment would be to contain the possibility of a regional conflict that would affect your members, not to deter Russia from attacking a country that is not a member, although a valued partner. Is that correct?

SECRETARY GENERAL JENS STOLTENBERG: It’s correct that we are not planning to deploy NATO combat troops to Ukraine. That’s correct.

MARGARET BRENNAN: And neither is the United States.


MARGARET BRENNAN: But don’t you think—and neither is the United States. President Biden has made that clear. And that has been one of the criticisms of NATO to date, that because—going back to 2014—the United States and NATO were not willing to use force to deter aggression and annexation of territory from a NATO partner—I know, not a member. But that Vladimir Putin saw that, and that he knows now there is not a willingness to use force to stop him. Why should he take NATO seriously now?

SECRETARY GENERAL JENS STOLTENBERG: So, first of all, because our main task is to protect the thirty allies, the one billion people, territory in North American and Europe. That’s our core task and we demonstrate once again our commitment and our readiness and have the capabilities to defend and deter any attack against NATO allies. So I’m absolutely certain that President Putin and Russia will take NATO very serious when it comes to our ability to protect and defend all allies. And we demonstrate that every day.

When it comes to Ukraine, I’m absolutely certain that Russia understands that they will have to pay a high price, because they—after they used force against Ukraine in 2014, we have imposed severe sanctions on Ukraine, and we have stepped up our support on sanctions on Russia after use of force against Ukraine. We have provided support to Ukraine, stepped up that. And we have increased our presence in eastern part of alliance. So if—with the battlegroups and more military presence in the eastern part of the alliance for the first time in our history.

So if the—if Russia wants less NATO at its borders, they have actually achieved exactly the opposite. And if they use force again against Ukraine, they will achieve even more NATO at their borders. So that’s, of course, a price for Russia—meaning that they have consequences if they violate international law, if they invade another country, but the consequences are different if they invade a partner—Ukraine—than if they invade a NATO ally. And I think it’s important to understand those differences and what is NATO’s core responsibilities.

MARGARET BRENNAN: As you know, French President Macron famously said about two years ago that he thought NATO was brain dead. Given what you are sketching out right now, do you think Vladimir Putin has unintentionally succeeded at giving you sort of new purpose and revitalizing the alliance?

SECRETARY GENERAL JENS STOLTENBERG: Well, I think the purpose of NATO has been there the whole time because in an unpredictable, unstable, more dangerous world it’s even more important that we stand together, that we protect each other. We need strong international institutions, as NATO, in a time of uncertainty.

I think we have demonstrated that in—also during the Cold War, of course. We demonstrated that when NATO helped end the brutal wars in the Balkans in the 1990s. I think we demonstrated that when NATO allies went into—helped the United States in Afghanistan after 9/11. And I think we demonstrate that now as we speak with the aggressive actions of Russia against Ukraine and the need to provide a hundred percent security guarantees for all NATO allies.

So NATO is the most successful alliance in history because we have been able to be united and we have been able to change when the world is changing, and that’s exactly what we are doing now.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, speaking of a changing world, you mentioned cyber. The Ukrainian government has been clear that they expect a cyberattack to precede any kind of kinetic attack. You said a few years ago a cyberattack on a member state would trigger the collective defense clause, Article 5. How do you plan to handle a Russian cyberattack on a non-member state now? And Ukraine said Russia already carried out an attack just within the past few weeks. Is that kind of thing just below NATO’s threshold to do more to respond?

SECRETARY GENERAL JENS STOLTENBERG: We don’t trigger Article 5 in response to an attack on a non-NATO country. But we provide—

MARGARET BRENNAN: That’s why I—that’s why I just asked the question, yes. That’s why I’m asking.

SECRETARY GENERAL JENS STOLTENBERG: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So—yeah. But what we do is that we help them also with their cyber defenses. And NATO allies provide significant support to Ukraine both to bolster their cyber defenses, to share information, and to share best practices. And we have just signed an agreement where we actually step up and create a framework for more support helping them with their cyber defenses.

More general, the message is that we have actually decided that an attack in cyberspace can trigger Article 5, and therefore we are ready to respond. But that can be in cyberspace, but it can also be in another domain. That’s for NATO to decide, depending on what kind of attack.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Right. Let me ask the question another way. When Russia carried out a cyberattack in Ukraine in 2017, NotPetya, it was an attack on Ukraine but it had global impact—I mean, on companies, on countries around the world. So it did impact countries beyond the target of Ukraine. Is that kind of scenario something you’re thinking about now? If Russia attacks Ukraine and the fallout from that attack impacts your member states, what should NATO do?

SECRETARY GENERAL JENS STOLTENBERG: So, first of all, it is extremely important that we are prepared for also cyberattacks and the consequences, as we saw some years ago when Ukraine was attacked but it had consequences for many other countries, as you said, all around the world. This is partly about strengthening our cyber defenses ourself. It’s about improving the way we share information about cyberattacks and improve the way we attribute, because one of the challenges with cyberattacks is that those behind very often deny that they are behind the cyberattacks. Attribution to actually identify who is behind is one of the main challenges we are working on as NATO allies to respond to cyberattacks.

And also, NATO allies have also increased our ability to do what we call national—to provide national cyber effects, meaning also to push back in cyberspace if needed. But I’m a bit afraid of going too far in speculating. I’m reluctant to go too far in speculating, because the aim now is to try to reduce tensions and to convince Russia, call Russia, urge Russia to sit down and engage in talks to prevent these kind of scenarios so we can find a political solution.

MARGARET BRENNAN: I know we have some people standing by to ask questions. Just to put a fine point on what you just said, do you disagree with Ukraine’s assessment that Russia carried out the attack, the cyberattack, two weeks ago? Or are you just saying you don’t want to answer that question?

SECRETARY GENERAL JENS STOLTENBERG: I’m saying that we are not going into details about our intelligence, but we are very much aware that Russia has been responsible for cyberattacks before. And they can, of course, be responsible for that again. And, of course, as a kind of first step or a precursor to a kinetic military attack, cyberattacks is a very likely scenario.

I can also add that one possibility is a full-fledged Russian invasion with tens of thousands of combat troops, heavy armor, planes, missiles, and all the stuff they have lined up along the borders of Ukraine. But there are also many other ways for Russia to conduct aggressive actions. Cyber is one; coup—efforts to topple the government in Kyiv; sabotage. They have intelligence officers working inside Ukraine as we speak. So we need to be prepared for a wide range of different forms of aggressive actions by Russia against Ukraine.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Mr. Secretary General, Ana Palacio is standing by with a question.


Q: Well, thank you, Margaret Brennan.

And it’s a great honor and a great pleasure, Secretary Stoltenberg; speaking from Madrid, where NATO will meet in June to define the new strategic concept.

My question is after the chaotic exit from Afghanistan and the bitter fighting between allies on budget, and frankly the already-mentioned comment by President Macron about NATO’s vitality, NATO is again back front and center of the geopolitical arena. And I would like you to tell us, forward-looking, what are the lessons about allied political unity that could be included in the next strategic concept from this experience?

SECRETARY GENERAL JENS STOLTENBERG: Let me first say that I’m very much looking forward to attending the NATO summit in Madrid in June. And Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and the whole Spanish government and the people of Spain will be great hosts, and that’s something I really look forward to.

Second, I believe that the Madrid summit will be a very important summit for many reasons, but not least because, as you said, we will agree a new strategic concept for NATO. The last time we did that was actually ten years ago. And the world has changed so much, so we need to update the strategic thinking and the strategic concept of NATO. Then—and then this concept will cover many issues.

But on your question, I think the most important lesson we can learn from all these events you mentioned is the importance of North America and Europe standing together, because when we face new threats and new challenges, a more assertive and aggressive Russia, cyberspace, terrorism, but also, of course, the security consequences of the rise of China, it is even more important that we have North America and Europe not apart but together, because as long as we stand together, we represent 50 percent of the world’s economic might and 50 percent of the world’s military might. So when we are together, we can tackle any challenge, any threat.

And I think that’s also important for United States, because it’s good for United States to have twenty-nine friends and allies. Sometimes they are concerned about the size of China. Of course, China is—United States is big, but not that big compared to China. But if you add all NATO allies, then we are really big and strong together. So I think the most important lesson is NATO and Europe together.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Thank you, Ana, who is the former foreign minister of Spain.

I want to move to our next questioner, Olena Tregub, if you would introduce yourself and ask your question now.

Q: Sure. Good afternoon, Secretary—Mr. Secretary General. I’m Olena Tregub. I lead a civil society organization here in Ukraine advancing good governance in defense sector. Thank you for this opportunity to ask you a question.

I was wondering, in your opinion, do you think it is possible to change the narrative about NATO and Ukraine to reflect the reality here on the ground? And the reality is that Ukrainian people want to move into NATO and Ukrainian people put pressure on our politicians, no matter who’s in power, to get us closer to NATO, while Russia sees the situation differently, that NATO is advancing towards Ukraine. Do you think if Putin believed that the desire to enter NATO comes from Ukrainian people, not the elites, he would act any differently right now?

SECRETARY GENERAL JENS STOLTENBERG: NATO has never and will never force any country into the alliance. Our door is open but we will never force anyone into that door. So the enlargement of NATO that has taken place over many decades is the result of democratic decisions by the people—by the peoples in free nations. So it represents the will of the people in all those nations who have decided to join our alliance.

That was the case when NATO was founded back in 1949 and that has been the case for each and every country, from Spain to Poland to Hungary to the Baltic countries, and recently, North Macedonia and Montenegro and many, many others.

So we—and I also—and it’s so obvious that those who try in a way to tell another story, they know that they’re not telling the truth because it is—the fact is that countries have become members of NATO through free, independent decisions.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Thank you. A next question comes from Gabriela Doyle. If you would introduce yourself and ask your question.

Q: Thank you, Margaret. Mr. Secretary General, it’s an honor. My name is Gabriela Doyle and I’m an assistant director with the Atlantic Council’s Transatlantic Security Initiative.

To some viewers, the crisis in Ukraine may seem like a far-off possibility, but its implications may affect all of us. What would you say to Americans in all fifty states and commonwealths about NATO’s value and role in the world not only in managing the current conflict with Russia but also in terms of what NATO can offer American communities?

SECRETARY GENERAL JENS STOLTENBERG: I think that two world wars and the Cold War taught us that peace and stability in Europe is not only good for Europe, it’s also good for the United States. So, of course, NATO and the American security guarantees to Europe they have been important for European allies.

But that is also extremely important for the United States. Peace, security, is the basis for prosperity. So, for ordinary Americans, it is extremely important that NATO is the foundation for peace and stability in our part of the world.

This has been demonstrated over decades and especially for the United States after 9/11. We invoked our collective defense clause and tens of thousands of European, Canadian, non-US NATO soldiers—personnel—have served shoulder to shoulder with American soldiers in Afghanistan in a response to an attack on the United States.

And then also, as I mentioned, when it comes to China, of course, China will soon have a bigger economy than the United States, the biggest—so China will have the biggest economy in the world. They already have the largest defense budget. They are leading within many technologies, like parts of artificial intelligence, parts of quantum computing, and they will have the biggest navy in the world.

So compared to China, it is a great advantage for the United States to have something that China and no other major power has and that is many friends and allies. It’s good to have friends. It’s good to have allies. And that’s exactly what United States has in NATO and that’s also why NATO is important for people in the United States.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Mr. Secretary General, there is a question coming in from someone watching at home: In a worst-case situation, should Russia attack Ukraine, could there be, in theory, a speedy accession for fully fit countries like Sweden and Finland, should they wish to join NATO?

SECRETARY GENERAL JENS STOLTENBERG: So NATO respects decisions by sovereign, independent nations, so we respect them if they apply for membership but we also respect if they decide not to apply, and therefore, we respect the decision that Finland and Sweden has taken so far not to apply for membership. And then we work closely with them. Finland and Sweden are our closest partners. We train together. We operate together. We have improved what we call the interoperability of forces so we can operate together, even though Finland and Sweden are not NATO members. And I spoke recently with the Finnish president, I spoke with the Swedish prime minister, and they conveyed very clearly this message that they’re not applying for membership, but for them it’s absolutely unacceptable what Russia now demands, that NATO should close the door forever for every potential member, because then Finland and Sweden would lose the freedom to, at the later stage, choose NATO membership, if they so want. So this is about the sovereign right of every nation to choose some path.

If they decide to apply, and that’s a 100 percent Finnish and Swedish decision, then I think it is possible to make a decision quickly and for them to join quickly. At the end of the day, this has to be a political decision, but when you see the high level of interoperability between NATO and Finland and Sweden, when you see to what degree all of them meet NATO standards, it should be possible to allow them into our alliance quite quickly.

MARGARET BRENNAN: We have time for just one more question. There is some speculation that Russia will not invade and disrupt the Olympics in China. Do you put credence in this, and can you explain how NATO sees the relationship between Russia and China?

SECRETARY GENERAL JENS STOLTENBERG: First of all, we have a lot of intelligence. We are monitoring very closely what is going on in, around Ukraine. We see a continued military buildup, we see the threatening rhetoric, and we also see the track record of Russia being willing to use force against Ukraine before. But at the same time, we have conveyed the message that there will be a high price to pay for Russia if they do so and Ukrainian forces are much stronger now than back in 2014. And we are pursuing a diplomatic path with Ukraine and with Russia; we just conveyed our written proposals. The reason why I say this is that I will not speculate. I just tell you that we are prepared both for a scenario where Russia invades or a scenario where they actually decide to sit down and engage in good faith in talks with NATO and NATO allies.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So you don’t see coordination between the two countries at this point?

SECRETARY GENERAL JENS STOLTENBERG: Oh, sorry, that was the other part of your question, yeah. Now what we see is that Russia and China are becoming closer and closer. They exercise together; they operate together; they stand together, for instance, more and more in the UN, in the UN Security Council. So these are two authoritarian regimes that do not share our values when it comes to democracy, the rule of law, the rules-based international order, and of course, that adds to the concern that these two countries are becoming closer and closer, both when it comes to military but also political cooperation, and they crack down on democratic opposition in their respective countries.

So all of us who believe in the rule of law, in democracy, in the freedom of press, we need to stand together, and that makes NATO just even more important that in a time where we see authoritarian regimes stepping up, it is even more important that we stand together as NATO, both when it comes to the deterrence and defense, but also on our diplomatic efforts to find political solutions and to engage in dialogue with Russia now on Ukraine and with China on arms control and many other issues. So NATO’s ready for dialogue, especially in light of the challenges both China and Russia poses to the rules-based order.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Mr. Secretary General, thank you for your time. Thank you for your comments about the free press, as well.

And that concludes our Atlantic Council Front Page event today. Thank you for being with us during what is an incredibly busy and important time for you. And the Atlantic Council’s programming will continue to follow this ongoing Russian aggression in and around Ukraine, and that’ll continue in just about fifteen minutes at 9:30 a.m. Eastern when we will hear from former NATO supreme allied commanders in Europe and they will answer questions about how the alliance can enhance collective defense and prepare for further escalation.

So thank you all for tuning in for this event. I’ll see you Sunday.


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Image: NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg holds a news conference ahead of a NATO defence ministers meeting at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels, Belgium on February 11, 2020. Photo via REUTERS/Francois Lenoir.