RD Debates: After last week’s appointment of Jens Stoltenberg as NATO’s new Secretary General, we asked experts whether the former Norwegian prime minister will improve NATO’s relationship with Russia


New NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg of Norway arrives to chair his first meeting at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels October 1, 2014. Photo: Reuters

While Russia and NATO have been trading barbs over the Ukrainian crisis and are struggling to overcome this standoff in their relations, the Oct. 1 appointment of NATO’s new Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, a former Norwegian prime minister, was met with optimism by some experts and officials.

For example, former NATO consultant John Wallace sees Stoltenberg as a person who is ready to come up with compromise solutions, as someone who “is expected to take a softer and more consensus-based approach,” as quoted by Russian news agency RIA Novosti.  

"He [Stoltenberg] stated that he is open-minded about the possibility of repairing the relationship and putting the NATO-Russia Council back into effect,” he told the Center on Global Interests in Washington on Oct. 8.

Meanwhile, some Russian experts remain very leery toward the new NATO Secretary General. Among them is Alexey Fenenko, a researcher at the Institute of International Security Problems of the Russian Academy of Sciences and an associate professor at Moscow State University.

“There is nothing good in this [the appointment of Stoltenberg] for Russia-NATO relations, because Scandinavian countries, except Finland, are always negative toward Russia,” he told RIA Novosti. Fenenko also pointed out that Russia and NATO have always seen each other as strategic competitors and that anti-Russian rhetoric will be persistent as long as the Ukrainian crisis continues.

At the same time, there seem to be no unequivocal indicators that NATO is going to toughen its position vis-à-vis Russia or improve its relations with Moscow. Even though NATO recently conducted the 2014 Rapid Trident military exercises in Ukraine, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it will expand closer to the Russian border, which the Kremlin would see as a threat. As Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin said after the  meeting with Stoltenberg this week, NATO has no plans to provide direct military assistance to Ukraine.

However, some of Stoltenberg’s statements might be met with suspicion in the Kremlin. During his recent visit to Poland, the new NATO head said that the Alliance could deploy its forces wherever it wants. "NATO has a strong army after all. We can deploy it wherever we want to," Stoltenberg told Poland’s state broadcaster TVP Info. "These capabilities already exist. We have them, and we can deploy them in individual regions. And this is only an add-on to what the alliance already has."

Given these recent developments, Russia Direct got in touch with Russian and foreign experts as well as with NATO officials to figure out what Moscow should expect from the new NATO head.

Nadezhda Arbatova, head of the Department of European Political Studies, Center for European Integration, Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO), Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS).

The changes in the upper echelons of NATO are naturally provoking the question in Russia as to how relations will develop between Brussels and Moscow. The new NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, seems to be facing a twofold task in respect of Russia: to ensure continuity in the alliance’s policy, while injecting some originality into relations with Moscow.

Although the main condition for a reset of relations between Russia and NATO is still a final settlement of the Ukrainian conflict, the arrival of this new politician, who is free of his predecessor’s harsh rhetoric towards the Kremlin, opens the door to more clearheaded relations in the spirit of political realism.

In fairness, it should be admitted that the NATO summit in Wales under Stoltenberg’s predecessor, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, did not take any pivotal decisions affecting the security of Russia. Agreements with Finland and Sweden were not signed. Ukraine did not receive special status as a NATO partner. In other words, there was no build-up of real military power on Russia’s borders.

Despite the complex nature of the dialogue with Moscow, the primary concern for Stoltenberg will be to preserve the unity of the North Atlantic alliance at a time of heightened international tensions, both in Europe and beyond.

Robert Pszczel, director of the NATO Information Office in Moscow.

As indicated from some interviews of Mr. Stoltenberg, his major goal is to implement those decisions adopted during the 2014 NATO Summit in Wales. This includes steps that are related to the concerns on NATO’s members from Eastern Europe [in regard to Russia’s recent policy].

That’s why the Readiness Action Plan was adopted at the summit. This means that NATO may increase its presence in the Eastern European countries on a rotation basis and conduct regular joint military exercises in those countries.

Yet, Mr. Stoltenberg indicated also that a stronger NATO that provides security for its allies doesn’t contradict the goal of improving its relations with Russia and fundamental agreements between NATO and Russia. However, the improvement of these relations will, of course, depends on Russian policy in relation to the situation in Ukraine.

Richard Weitz, senior fellow and director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute. He is also a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS).

The appointment of Jens Stoltenberg as NATO’s new Secretary General was an important but not critical outcome of the recent Wales summit. Stoltenberg is the first leader of NATO from a country neighboring Russia. Although many of Russia’s neighbors have generally hostile views towards Russia, Norway and Stoltenberg do not.

As Prime Minister of Norway, he negotiated an important agreement with former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev resolving their countries’ contested Artic boundary.

In his first few public speeches following his appointment as NATO leader, Stoltenberg has been critical of Russia’s polices towards Ukraine and supported the decision at Wales to increase NATO military activities near Russia, but he also said that he hoped to improve relations once Moscow changed its policies.

Unlike his predecessor Rasmussen, whose exaggerated initial hopes of cooperating with Russia led to his feeling betrayed and disillusioned when Russia did not accept his offers of cooperation regarding, in particular, global missile defense, Stoltenberg is approaching Russia more realistically based on his long experience dealing with Russia.

However, we should not expect a major near-term improvement in Russia-NATO relations. The Russian government has not ended its support for the east Ukraine separatists or returned the Crimea to Ukraine, Stoltenberg has just assumed office and is preoccupied with the Islamic State threat, and his power in any case is constrained by his own recognition that his function is to implement rather than make policy.

Rasmussen ran into trouble when he was seen as making policies without the approval of important NATO governments. In particular, the U.S. government criticized his attempts to establish direct contacts between NATO and the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization when it was the policy of the United States and other NATO members to bypass that organization and deal with its members directly. Stoltenberg’s ability to improve ties between NATO and Russia remains hostage to the broader relations between NATO member governments and Russia, which are poor.

Igor Istomin, senior lecturer in the Department of Applied International Analysis of Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO-University).

As NATO’s policies are formed based on the agreement between its member states, the Secretary General only represents these decisions and transforms them into specific actions. Therefore, his influence on the decision-making process is very limited.

This is evident from the example of the previous Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who in the beginning of his term in 2009, repeatedly stressed the importance of building good relations with Russia. His position today is completely different and follows the general logic of NATO.

The explanation for such a change in thinking lies in the general interests of NATO. In 2009 the goal of the bloc was to rebuild its relations with Russia after the war in Georgia, while in 2014 the allies are eager to show their discontentment with Russia’s policy over Ukraine. That’s why the new Secretary General’s role will be strictly representative and may be used rather as an indicator of NATO’s thinking.

At the moment, the allies are not that eager to be involved in any campaigns abroad. The bloc is focused on ensuring the security of its members as a response to the crisis in Ukraine and Russia’s policies in the region.

The relations between Russia and NATO today are characterized by two things. First, there is no real probability of a direct military conflict between NATO and Russian forces – claims of locating additional NATO forces in Central Europe are of a demonstrative nature not significantly changing the balance of power in Europe.

Second, with International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) leaving Afghanistan, there are almost no areas where NATO and Russia could cooperate. In these circumstances, the interaction between the two parties has a more virtual nature, lacking any substance. So, while there is no possibility for military conflict, there are no preconditions for rapprochement either.