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NATO Secretary General: We’ll Strengthen Ties With Ukraine
11 July, 2017

Fighting corruption is an integral component of Ukraine's efforts to build a partnership with NATO, says Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. This will require significant effort on the part of the Ukrainian authorities, but NATO will provide assistance, he says.

Stoltenberg, a former Norwegian Prime Minister, stressed that the question of NATO membership for Ukraine is complex and dependent on two major factors: Kyiv must decide whether to apply and the member states must unanimously vote to accept Ukraine for it to become a member.

In any case, NATO is moving to strengthen its partnership with Kyiv, Stoltenberg says. In particular, the North Atlantic military alliance is working to help Ukraine improve its cyber defenses — an important issue for a country that has suffered two crippling cyber attacks since 2015.

NATO continues to take a firm position against Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea and interventnion in Ukraine's eastern Donbas. NATO has deployed four battalions to Poland and the Baltic states as a deterrent to further agression. At the same time, the alliance aims to maintain dialogue with Russia, Stoltenberg says.

Stoltenberg took the helm of NATO in October 2014, as Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine suddenly increased the importance of collective security in Europe and the North Atlantic.

This week Stoltenberg came to Kyiv to participate in a July 10 session of the NATO-Ukraine commission. During that meeting, President Petro Poroshenko said Ukraine would begin discussions on an action plan for NATO membership.

Hromadkse sat down with the Secretary General Stoltenberg to discuss NATO and Ukraine’s prospects of joining the alliance.

Photo credit: Oleksandr Popenko, Hromadske

Secretary General, “Meet NATO standards, fight corruption.” So, I’m quoting you, that’s an extremely important message. When we are in an environment where there’s more focus, it is easier to achieve goals. So would you name one or two priorities, especially for NATO, regarding those issues? For instance, civil oversight over the Ministry of Defence or something like that. One or two.

The most important thing is to be successful in the fight against corruption, because corruption is hindering and hampering all the other efforts. That’s the reason why we have something called "Building Integrity," which is a NATO program where we work together with Ukraine on how we can advise and help Ukraine be more successful in the fight against corruption. NATO cannot solve that problem for Ukraine. It has to be Ukraine and Ukrainian leaders that solve the problem, but we can help. We can support. We can share the experience and advice we have from other countries which have made progress in the fight against corruption.

Many times you have mentioned that the NATO door is open for Ukraine. That’s a part of your message. While a lot of Ukrainians, including Ukrainian politicians, feel the urge of “Can we speed up?” How can we develop the Ukraine-NATO membership action plan? And there’s a legitimate concern that inaction in our part of the world provokes those who threaten us, we do have this experience. So, what would the answer be? I understand it might be that Ukraine will join NATO way later than Ukrainians expect. But what would be this policy? What defines Ukrainian-NATO relations in the near future? Will it stay the same or is there anything planned?

The plan is to strengthen our partnership and to work more closely together on many different areas, for example on cyber[security]. We are doing a lot, and we are stepping up [efforts]. NATO will provide equipment and we will strengthen the cyber defenses of key Ukrainian institutions [and] help Ukraine to do so. And also helping Ukraine to develop capabilities to investigate and to attribute who’s behind the different cyber attacks. That’s one where we do a lot, and we can step up and do even more. And that’s extremely relevant for a response to hybrid threats, hybrid warfare. And then, we are also doing a lot when it comes to meeting NATO standards, interoperability, meaning how Ukrainian military forces can strengthen the way they can work together with NATO forces.

Watch More: What The Ukrainian Parliament's Vote To Join NATO Means

That’s good for Ukraine, but also good for NATO. On the membership issue, the main [point] from NATO is that it is a sovereign decision by Ukraine, whether it wants to apply or not. And it is a decision by 28 allies on whether NATO is ready to enlarge and to have a new member. No one else has to interfere in that process. The President raised the issue of membership action plan. It was not discussed in depth, but the main issue is that Ukraine already has the tools to make progress moving close to NATO with the comprehensive assistance package which is a wide ranging package of many different strands of cooperation and we are following up and implementing all these strands of effort.

Photo credit: Oleksandr Popenko, Hromadske

Deterrence and defense, that’s what’s always mentioned. There was a decision to deploy four NATO battalions in Poland and the Baltic States. We covered that extensively as journalists and paid attention to that. But right after that there was the announcement by the Russian side, by the President and Minister of Defense, to deploy 30 battalions to the western border of Russia, then later there was about the divisions and even tactical battalions. So what can NATO and what can you do to stop this spiral, while at the same time insuring the safety of those who are there?

For NATO it is extremely important to respond in a measured and proportioned way. There can be no doubt that where NATO now is increasing our military presence in the eastern part of our alliance, in the Baltic countries and in the Black Sea region, that’s a response to the aggressive actions of Russia in Ukraine. No one thought about and no one was discussing this military presence in the east before Russia illegally annexed Crimea and started to destabilize Eastern Ukraine. So we are responding, but at the same time we are responding in a proportioned and measured way because we don’t want a new arms race, we don’t want a new Cold War. Russia is there to stay. Russia is our neighbour and therefore we convey the message of defense and dialogue. We need to be firm, we need to be predictable and at the same time we need to avoid tensions escalating and creating an even more difficult relationship with Russia.

Photo credit: Oleksandr Popenko, Hromadske

Do you think you are successful in that?

I think that without the measured but firm response of NATO we would have a much more uncertain situation in Europe. By deploying troops to the eastern part of the alliance we are sending a clear message that an attack on one NATO ally will trigger a response from the whole alliance because these forces are multinational, and thereby sending a really strong message of deterrence and multinational response to any attack against any NATO ally. At the same time we have been able to establish dialogue with Russia and I think that’s important because especially when tensions run high, it’s important to talk.

Russia will have military exercises in Belarus this autumn called Zapad (or “West” in Russian). We heard especially from the Baltic partners that they are concerned. Do you share that concern? Will there be any NATO observers? How would you treat that?

We will monitor and follow the “Zapad” exercise closely. All nations have the right to exercise their forces but they should do that in a responsible way and they should of course do it in accordance with international agreements, relations and commitments. For instance, the Vienna Document, which is a document that requires international observation and notification of big military exercises, and we call on Russia to do exactly that when it comes to the “Zapad” exercises.

If we speak about the trust funds created for Ukraine by NATO. What could be improved in their work in terms of transparency, quality and speed of use of those funds allocated there?

For us transparency when it comes to the use of the NATO trust funds is fundamental and therefore we are transparent in what we do in Ukraine. Actually, one of the purposes with some of the funds and some of the NATO programs and activities is to create more transparency, is to be extremely open on what kind of activities and programs we are working for in Ukraine.

We have listened carefully to President Trump talking again and again like he said in Warsaw about the two percent of GDP for NATO members, which is good for allies. At the same time there are worries among the NATO members about the sometimes unclear position of President Trump. You are in a position where you have to put the allies together. You don’t need to confront or alienate anybody, but what would be your message to the US leadership to make this cooperation easier, also for the partners? What are your concerns?

So my message is that it’s absolutely possible to have a very ambitious but also positive message on defense spending, deterrence and NATO’s collective defense, because we are starting to deliver. European allies are now actually starting to really increase defense spending for the first time in many many years. The last two years total defense spending across Europe and Canada has increased by about 46 billion USD which is a significant amount of money for defense, for investments in equipment and capabilities. When it comes to partners I strongly agree that a strong NATO, collective defense, deterrence in Europe, helped to stabilize all of Europe.

Photo credit: Oleksandr Popenko, Hromadske

So it’s also important for countries like Ukraine, Georgia and countries in the Western Balkans who are not members of NATO, but of course they benefit from the stabilizing effect a strong and predictable NATO has on the whole security situation in Europe. And, some of the money we invest in defense is also spent in programs and activities where we work together with Ukraine, modernizing and improving the armed forces of Ukraine because we strongly support the independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine.

So no concerns about the U.S.?

The U.S. is committed to NATO and that’s not only words but also in deed. The U.S. is now increasing their military presence in Europe for the first time in many many years. And I think the fact that the U.S. is leading one of the battalions, the battalion that we have in Poland, but also are increasing their military presence in Europe on top of that with more funds for exercise, for pre-positioned equipment, supplies and forces. I think that’s the strongest possible sign and commitment to NATO and to the U.S. security guarantees for Europe.

/Interview by Nataliya Gumenyuk

/Text by Mattew Kupfer