The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion What is the future of the war in Ukraine? NATO’s leader offers insight.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg outside the White House on June 2, 2022. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post) (The Washington Post)
9 min

Jens Stoltenberg is the 13th secretary general of NATO, a position he has held since 2014. Before that, he twice served as prime minister of Norway, for a total of nine years. The Post Editorial Board asked him about the Ukraine war and other critical issues for the alliance. The interview, which took place last week at NATO headquarters in Brussels, has been edited for length and clarity.

Lee Hockstader, Washington Post Editorial Board: How has the war led NATO to recalibrate its defense posture and doctrine?

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg: The war in Ukraine has fundamentally changed NATO, but then you have to remember the war didn’t start in 2022. The war started in 2014. And since then, NATO has implemented the biggest reinforcement of our collective defense since the end of the Cold War.

For the first time in our history, we have combat-ready troops in the eastern part of the alliance, the battle groups in Poland, Lithuania, the Baltic countries, actually the whole eight battle groups from the Baltic Sea down to the Black Sea. Higher readiness of our forces. And increased defense spending. Until 2014, NATO allies were reducing defense budgets. Since 2014, all allies across Europe and Canada have significantly increased their defense spending. And we have modernized our command structure, we have more exercises, we have established new military domains like cyber. So in totality, this is a huge transformation of NATO that started in 2014.

Guest Opinion: What 6 data points tell us about the status of the war in Ukraine

Hockstader: Despite that, only seven NATO members have met the alliance’s target of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense.

Follow Editorial Board's opinions

Stoltenberg: First of all, compared to where we were in 2014, there’s a huge difference. Because until 2014, we were going down. Now, we’re going up.

Second, NATO allies in total, across Europe and Canada, have added $350 billion for defense spending since 2014, which is significant. More and more allies meet the 2 percent target, and almost all allies have plans in place to be there within a few years. And, of course, the war in Ukraine has demonstrated the importance of investing.

Hockstader: What does a plausible way forward to Ukraine’s eventual membership in NATO look like?

Stoltenberg: First of all, all NATO allies agree that Ukraine will become a member of the alliance. All allies agree that Ukraine has the right to choose its own path, that it is not for Moscow, but for Kyiv, to decide. And thirdly, all allies agree that NATO’s door remains open. Then the question is when, and I cannot give you a timetable on that.

What I can say is that we are now working with them, to help them transition from Soviet-era equipment, doctrines and standards to NATO doctrines and standards, to make their armed forces interoperable with NATO forces, and to help them to further reform and modernize their defense and security institutions.

The urgent task now is to ensure that Ukraine prevails as a sovereign, independent nation, because if Ukraine doesn’t prevail, then there is no issue to discuss at all.

Skip to end of carousel
  • The Biden administration releases a review on the Colorado River.
  • The misery of Belarus’s political prisoners should not be ignored.
  • Biden has a new border plan.
  • The United States should keep the pressure on Nicaragua.
  • America’s fight against inflation isn’t over.
  • The Taliban has doubled down on the repression of women.
The Biden administration released an environmental impact statement outlining options for cutting use of the Colorado River. Water allocations could prioritize farmers in California based on centuries-old water rights, or involve proportional cuts to Arizona, California and Nevada. The review also included the costs of the status quo.
The administration will likely decide on a course of action by August. As we outlined in an editorial in February, a voluntary agreement between the states is the best option — and a dramatic reimagining of water use is needed thereafter.
Ihar Losik, one of hundreds of young people unjustly jailed in Belarus for opposing Alexander Lukashenko’s dictatorship, attempted suicide but was saved and sent to a prison medical unit, according to the human rights group Viasna. Losik, 30, a blogger who led a popular Telegram channel, was arrested in 2020 and is serving a 15-year prison term on charges of “organizing riots” and “incitement to hatred.” His wife is also a political prisoner. Read more about their struggle — and those of other political prisoners — in a recent editorial.
The Department of Homeland Security has provided details of a plan to prevent a migrant surge along the southern border. The administration would presumptively deny asylum to migrants who failed to seek it in a third country en route — unless they face “an extreme and imminent threat” of rape, kidnapping, torture or murder. Critics allege that this is akin to an illegal Trump-era policy. In fact, President Biden is acting lawfully in response to what was fast becoming an unmanageable flow at the border. Read our most recent editorial on the U.S. asylum system.
Some 222 Nicaraguan political prisoners left that Central American country for the United States in February. President Daniel Ortega released and sent them into exile in a single motion. Nevertheless, it appears that Mr. Ortega let them go under pressure from economic sanctions the United States imposed on his regime when he launched a wave of repression in 2018. The Biden administration should keep the pressure on. Read recent editorials about the situation in Nicaragua.
Inflation remains stubbornly high at 6.4 percent in January. The Federal Reserve’s job is not done in this fight. More interest rate hikes are needed. Read a recent editorial about inflation and the Fed.
Afghanistan’s rulers had promised that barring women from universities was only temporary. But private universities got a letter on Jan. 28 warning them that women are prohibited from taking university entrance examinations. Afghanistan has 140 private universities across 24 provinces, with around 200,000 students. Out of those, some 60,000 to 70,000 are women, the AP reports. Read a recent editorial on women’s rights in Afghanistan.


End of carousel

Hockstader: We’ve seen no real moves toward nuclear deployment by Russian President Vladimir Putin. In fact, China has warned against that, which should carry some weight in Moscow. Should the world still regard these nuclear threats as credible?

Stoltenberg: NATO has fundamentally two tasks in the war. One is to support Ukraine, as we do. The other is to prevent escalation. And we prevent escalation by making absolutely clear that we are not party to the conflict, and by increasing military presence in the eastern part of alliance as we have done — with 40,000 troops under NATO command backed by substantial naval and air forces.

There's a constant discussion about what more types of weapons we should provide, and there are consultations going on among allies, also on the issue of fighter jets. As important as discussing new systems is, it is also extremely important to focus on the sustainment of all the systems we have already delivered — ammunition, spare parts, maintenance.

Hockstader: In the Discord leaks, we saw that American intelligence assesses a small likelihood of major territorial changes arising from the coming Ukrainian offensive. Do you share that assessment?

Stoltenberg: So, first, I will not confirm the information in those leaks, and we know that at least some of them are manipulated and not correct.

Second, the Ukrainians have proven they are able to retake territory.

Thirdly, since the winter, when these alleged leaks took place, there has been an enormous and unprecedented supply of new weapons and ammunition and spare parts and training. So NATO allies and partners have trained this winter more than nine brigades, which are now fully equipped, fully manned and well trained. And that’s a significant fighting power, including 230 battle tanks, heavy armor. And a lot of modern weapons systems.

David Ignatius: The U.S. warms to a role for China in resolving the Ukraine war

Hockstader: Is it plausible that China could play a diplomatic role in negotiating an end to the war?

Stoltenberg: So far, they have not been able to condemn the illegal invasion of Ukraine, but I welcome that conversation between President Volodymyr Zelensky and President Xi Jinping.

What happens in Europe matters for Asia, and what happens in Asia matters for Europe. Because if President Putin wins in Ukraine, it’s a tragedy for the Ukrainians. But it’s also dangerous for all of us. Because that will send a message to President Putin, but also to President Xi, that when they use military force, they get what they want. And that will make us more vulnerable.

Hockstader: Obviously, NATO is about the North Atlantic, not the Pacific, and yet in a war over Taiwan, American military bases in the Pacific could easily be targets. Can you imagine any scenario in which NATO is involved in conflict with China?

Stoltenberg: Yes, NATO will remain an alliance of North America and Europe, it will not become a global alliance with members from Asia, and our collective security guarantee applies for NATO territory. Second, any conflict in and around Taiwan will have profound consequences for all of us. Trade, 50 percent of container freight, ships go through the Taiwan Strait. A significant amount of all of the world’s semiconductors are produced in Taiwan. So the economic and trade consequences of conflict in Taiwan will be enormous immediately. And then, of course, military conflict will also matter for NATO and NATO allies.

Hockstader: Tell me, please, your assessment of French President Emmanuel Macron’s ambitions for European strategic autonomy.

Stoltenberg: We welcome European Union efforts on defense. What we must avoid is duplication and competition, partly because the E.U. cannot defend Europe. Eighty percent of NATO’s defense expenditure comes from non-E.U. allies. It’s also about geography. If you look at the NATO map, Norway in the north, and Turkey in the south, but also of course the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom, they are critical for the defense of Europe.

And then politically, any attempt to weaken the bond between North America and Europe will not only divide NATO; it will divide Europe. If there’s anything we have learned from the war in Ukraine, it is that North America and Europe have to stand together. Non-E.U. NATO allies like the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom have trained Ukrainian forces since 2014. And, of course, they’re providing a substantial part — 78 percent of the support to Ukraine comes from non-E.U. NATO allies.

Skip to end of carousel
Post Opinions provides commentary on the war in Ukraine from columnists with expertise in foreign policy, voices on the ground in Ukraine and more.
Columnist David Ignatius covers foreign affairs. His columns have broken news on new developments around the war. He also answers questions from readers. Sign up to follow him.
Iuliia Mendel, a former press secretary for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, writes guest opinions from inside Ukraine. She has written about trauma, Ukraine’s “women warriors” and what it’s like for her fiance to go off to war.
Columnist Fareed Zakaria covers foreign affairs. His columns have reviewed the West’s strategy in Ukraine. Sign up to follow him.
Columnist Josh Rogin covers foreign policy and national security. His columns have explored the geopolitical ramifications of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine. Sign up to follow him.
Columnist Max Boot covers national security. His columns have encouraged the West to continue its support for Ukraine’s resistance. Sign up to follow him.


End of carousel

Hockstader: What would a second Trump administration mean for U.S. leadership or NATO?

Stoltenberg: I was secretary general during the period when Donald Trump was president of the United States. Of course, there were some disagreements among NATO allies on different issues, ranging from climate change to the Iran nuclear deal.

But the reality is that on NATO issues, we were actually able to do more together. And again, that demonstrates the strength of NATO, that we have always been able to unite around the core values.

Hockstader: Polls show an erosion of support for Ukraine, particularly among Republicans.

Stoltenberg: I’m absolutely confident that the strong U.S. bipartisan support for Ukraine will remain, not least because this is in the security interest of the United States. A strong NATO is good for Europe, and support for Ukraine is also good for the United States, especially when we see the security challenges posed by China.

No other major power has 30 friends and allies as the United States has in NATO. Neither Russia nor China has anything similar. And together, NATO allies represent 50 percent of the world’s military might and 50 percent of the world’s economic might. So even the United States, which is of course by far the biggest ally, needs friends. If President Putin wins, it’s a tragedy for Ukrainians and dangerous for all of us, including the United States.

Hockstader: Would a Russian attack on critical infrastructure like undersea cables owned by NATO members or companies cause the invocation of NATO’s Article 5?

Stoltenberg: That’s for NATO to decide. We are now looking into how can we do more when it comes to sharing intelligence, including with the private sector, to detect any potential threats. That’s one thing. The other is presence, military presence, as a way to deter but also to monitor.

We cannot protect every inch of every internet cable, but presence helps to reduce the risks and reduce the possibility for Russian deniability. We’ve seen over the last years that Russia is not seeking a full-fledged confrontation with NATO, triggering Article 5, but they’re trying to operate below the Article 5 threshold. Meaning with hybrid, cyber, covert actions. And, of course, attacks against undersea infrastructure — it’s easy to deny because it’s hard to monitor.

The Post’s View | About the Editorial Board

Editorials represent the views of The Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Opinion Editor David Shipley; Deputy Opinion Editor Karen Tumulty; Associate Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg (national politics and policy); Lee Hockstader (European affairs, based in Paris); David E. Hoffman (global public health); James Hohmann (domestic policy and electoral politics, including the White House, Congress and governors); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Associate Editor Ruth Marcus; Mili Mitra (public policy solutions and audience development); Keith B. Richburg (foreign affairs); and Molly Roberts (technology and society).