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Jens Stoltenberg

Nato secretary-general

The Nato secretary-general’s plane climbs through the clouds, leaving Kiev behind as it heads west back to Brussels. Over the past 30 hours, Jens Stoltenberg has taken two helicopter rides, addressed four press conferences, held six meetings with Ukrainian government officials and been presented with one very large loaf of bread. Throughout it all the former Norwegian prime minister has tried to walk a very fine line: showing just enough enthusiasm towards his Ukrainian hosts without further antagonising Russia.

Now, sat in the executive seat of the Embraer ERJ 135l leased by Nato from the Belgian air force, Stoltenberg relaxes and recalls the first time he had to consider a confrontation with Russia. For a brief moment he is a teenage army conscript once again, remembering with unexpected enthusiasm his abilities with a rocket launcher. “That was my speciality,” he says, grinning and holding his arms above his left shoulder as if the M72 was still there. “Hiding in the Norwegian forests, looking for foreign tanks.”

These days Stoltenberg is armed only with carefully crafted, if rather bland, statements. But as the plane heads back into Nato territory over Poland and Germany before starting the descent into Belgium, he begins to open up about Nato expansion, the rise of Isis, the left-wing case for Nato and why spending more money on defence is the only way to deal with the threat from Russia.

No one expects being secretary-general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to be a quiet job. But when Stoltenberg’s name was first linked with the post in early 2014, Nato had withdrawn from Iraq, Afghanistan was winding down and the fight against piracy in the Horn of Africa was under control. The rows with Russia over Georgia and Ukraine’s applications for membership were not forgotten but the sting had long since disappeared; both countries were now run by more Russia-friendly presidents.

Yet by the time Stoltenberg’s appointment was announced in March 2014 there had been a revolution in Ukraine and Russia had annexed Crimea. Once he took up the post six months later Isis had captured large swathes of land across both Syria and Iraq. Suddenly, after a 25-year period when Nato was little more than an afterthought, the alliance was once again at the centre of world events. That’s unlikely to change anytime soon, according to Stoltenberg. “To predict is a very risky business. But we have to be prepared for the long haul. We have to be prepared for the unseen.”

Of the two threats, it is Russia that takes up more of his time. Partly this is because while Nato allies are involved in the fight against Isis, Nato itself has not taken on a role so far. Stoltenberg shows no enthusiasm for claiming one either, though he does mention – unprompted – that the operation in Afghanistan started as a US-led coalition before developing into a Nato mission.

Nato has taken the lead in the Ukraine crisis though, and Stoltenberg seems comfortable with that. Since his teenage conscript days, Russia has loomed large throughout Stoltenberg’s career. He became Norway’s deputy environment minister in 1990 after a brief period as an economist for the country’s central bureau of statistics. “My mind told my heart that I enjoyed it but in reality it was a kind of lie for myself.” Working in government was far more exciting and over the following two-and-a-half decades, including 10 years as prime minister, he lost count of the number of bilateral meetings he held with his Russian counterparts.

“I worked with Russia a lot up in the north,” he says, referring to the Arctic. “During the Cold War, Norway had a pragmatic working relationship with the Soviet Union, working on the environment, energy, fisheries, border and military issues. And when I was in the ministries of environment, energy and finance, and also as prime minister, I took part in many different kinds of bilateral talks and discussions with Russia.”

Stoltenberg argues that Nato membership allowed Norway to deal with Russia on an equal basis. “For decades we were able to work with both the Russians and the Soviet Union. Not despite the fact we were a member of Nato but because of the fact. Nato provided us with the strength and the platform as a small country to engage with Russia and to have a respectful, co-operative relationship. Russia respected Norway because we were part of a strong alliance.”

It is this experience that prompts Stoltenberg to dismiss those on the left who question Nato’s purpose. In the days before our interview the UK Labour party chooses a new leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who has blamed Nato for provoking Russia and suggested that the UK may be better off out of the alliance. Stoltenberg, a social democrat and a former leader of the Norwegian Labour party, is polite but makes clear he has little time for such an argument. “You need strong defence, you need collective security. This is not in contradiction to political engagements, disarmament [or] seeking political solutions to conflicts.”

He then recalls the experience of another social democrat faced with a similar challenge two generations ago. “Fundamentally this is the same message that Willy Brandt formulated in the 1960s and 1970s with Ostpolitik. That was not pacifism. That was not unilateral disarmament. But it was the idea of West Germany inside Nato being able to reach out to the Soviet Union, to advocate in favour of disarmament, confidence-building, arms control and so on.”

Stoltenberg, remember, is no centre-left neo-conservative. Following the 2011 attacks in Oslo and Utøya, when a far-right terrorist killed 77 people, Stoltenberg, then prime minister, did not follow the playbook of US president George W Bush (“Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists”) or UK prime minister Tony Blair (“The rules of the game have changed”). Instead he said that Norway would respond with “more democracy, more openness and more humanity”.

He believes that a better relationship with Russia is possible but only by showing its government that Nato has the military strength and political will to defend itself. “I’m strongly in favour of increasing investment in our security, our collective defence. I believe that’s the best way to establish a co-operative relationship with Russia. At some stage they have to understand that they will gain more from co-operating with us than confronting us. We have to be prepared for the long haul.” He pauses. “During the Cold War this took 40 years.” He stops again for a moment. “How many years it will take this time, I will not speculate.”

The trip to Ukraine, his first as Nato secretary-general, is a delicate balancing act. Ukraine’s new government, led by president Petro Poroshenko and prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, is trying to frame its battle with Russian-backed separatists as the frontline in a Russian war with the West. Nato has provided limited support but Ukraine wants the alliance to supply them with weapons. Ultimately it also wants membership. Nato allies are less keen: had Ukraine been a member when Russia had sent in troops they would have been treaty-bound to defend them.

Stoltenberg spends his time on the ground repeating the same phrases – “Ukraine can rely on Nato”; “Nato provides Ukraine with political and practical support” (note, not military). By the time he holds his fourth press conference in less than 24 hours, the entire press corps travelling with him can recite every line.

The Ukrainians seem to be in the habit of exaggerating the significance of every part of this trip, while Nato does its best to tamp it down. Stoltenberg and Poroshenko inaugurate the launch of a civil-emergency exercise at a military base in Yavoriv, 45km west of Lviv. Poroshenko claims it’s the first ever joint exercise of this nature; a Nato press officer quietly points out that it’s the third. Some 34 nations are involved, he says; Nato reckons it’s 28. Poroshenko praises the military personnel involved; Stoltenberg’s most firmly delivered line is, “This is not a military exercise.”

The following day Stoltenberg meets Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council in the ostentatious presidential palace in Kiev. Before the trip the Ukrainian ambassador to Nato had told Reuters that a new military doctrine naming Russia as an aggressor would be signed in the presence of Stoltenberg. Behind the scenes, Nato makes it clear that this won’t be happening; the document is quietly dropped from the agenda.

Stoltenberg tries to make the case that Nato membership is not everything: co-operation is possible all the same. For the Ukrainians that is not enough. The “cause for fully fledged membership of Nato is unquestionable”, says Yatsenyuk in the defence and security council meeting. It is “the will of Ukrainians”.

Back on the plane Stoltenberg reiterates the message that there is much Nato can do for Ukraine without membership. He is far less pessimistic about the chances of Sweden or Finland, if they ever decide to apply.

Without wishing to interfere in the domestic politics of a Nordic neighbour – “Swedes will never listen to advice from a Norwegian secretary-general” – Stoltenberg makes no attempt to put them off. “We work with them in almost all our operations and activities. We exercise with them, we assess challenges in the Baltic. They are as close as it’s possible to get without becoming members.”

For now Stoltenberg is more than happy with the 28 members; a 29th, Montenegro, may join soon. The Nato he’s trying to forge looks similar to the one that grew during the Cold War. He says that collective defence needs to be “reinforced”. “In the future we have to make sure that we are able to defend our allies against any threat.” But that doesn’t mean those weapons have to be used. “In 40 years we never fired a single shot.”

You sense the man who carried a rocket launcher but never had to fire it in anger likes it that way.

Nato and Russia

Tensions between Nato and Russia are not confined to the Ukraine crisis. Vladimir Putin’s decision to launch air strikes in Syria to bolster president Bashar al-Assad has further inflamed the relationship. Russian and US jets are now taking part in separate bombing missions inside the same country – a level of co-ordination has been necessary but it has not been straightforward. Russia’s dealings with Turkey have also suffered after Russian planes entered Turkish airspace. Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has warned Russia that “an attack on Turkey means an attack on Nato”.

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