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NATO’s chief on how to prevent Russian tensions from spiraling

April 12, 2017 at 6:40 PM EDT
President Trump held a joint White House news conference with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on Wednesday, where the president suggested the U.S.-Russia relationship might be at an all-time low. Stoltenberg joins Judy Woodruff to discuss how NATO is responding to a “more assertive” Russia, plus past comments from Mr. Trump about NATO and the global fight against terrorism.

JUDY WOODRUFF: As we reported earlier, President Trump hosted the NATO secretary-general this afternoon at the White House.

And a short time later, I spoke with Jens Stoltenberg.

Mr. Secretary-General, welcome to the NewsHour.

We heard President Trump say today that relations between the United States and Russia may be at their lowest point since the end of the Cold War. Would you say the same thing about relations between NATO and Russia right now?

JENS STOLTENBERG, NATO Secretary-General: At least the relationship is difficult.

And that reflects that we see a more assertive Russia, which has implemented a very significant military buildup over several years, and a Russia which has used military force against neighbors, especially Ukraine.

And NATO is responding to that with the high readiness of our forces, with the biggest reinforcement to our collective defense since the end of the Cold War. At the same time, we say that we are seeking to avoid a new Cold War, avoid a new arms race, and, therefore, we continue to work for a more constructive relationship with Russia, including political dialogue with Russia.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, how do you prevent it from becoming just a oneupmanship? Because you’re right. The Russians have sent more troops, move material to their border. NATO is now doing the same thing on its eastern border.

How does this thing just — how do you keep it from spiraling out of control?

JENS STOLTENBERG: Partly by making sure that what NATO does is proportionate, defensive.

And, therefore, we are deploying battle groups, battalions, which we consider necessary to convey a message of deterrence, credible deterrence, that if one NATO ally is attacked, it will trigger a whole response from the whole alliance.

But, at the same time, we have been able to convene last three meetings of — in what we call the NATO-Russia council after two years without any meetings. And this council is a platform where NATO and Russia meets.

We discuss issues like Ukraine, like Afghanistan, and so on.


JENS STOLTENBERG: And that’s a way to keep the channels for political dialogue open and to keep the tensions down.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You did just from the meeting with President Trump.

He spent months and months in his campaign for president and even since then criticizing NATO, criticizing its role, at times even asking whether NATO was obsolete. Why do you think his — or do you think his view of NATO has changed, and, if so, why?

JENS STOLTENBERG: I welcome the fact that he has clearly stated today that NATO is not obsolete.

And I think, also, that reflects that NATO is adapting. NATO is the most successful alliance in history because we have been able to change, to adapt when the world is changing. And now NATO is stepping up its effort in the global fight against terrorism, and we are responding to a more assertive Russia with an increase of our collective defense, with more presence in the eastern part of the alliance.

So, as long as NATO changes when the world is changing, we will be very important for the security of all our allies, including the United States.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, you did note today that NATO members are increasing their contributions to the alliance, as President Trump has been calling for them to do.

Are you confident, though, that that is going to continue in the way that you and President Trump say that it needs to?

JENS STOLTENBERG: I expect it to continue, because all 28 allies have agreed that they will stop the cuts in defense spending, gradual increase, and then move towards spending 2 percent of GDP, gross domestic product, on defense.

And the encouraging thing is that we have seen that we have turned a corner. After many, many years of decline in defense spending across Europe and Canada, in 2016, we saw the first significant increase. We still have a long way to go, but at least European allies have kind of started move in the right direction.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You also spoke today, Mr. Secretary-General, about the fight against terrorism, the global fight, and you said NATO has a larger role to play in that regard.

What exactly did you have in mind?

JENS STOLTENBERG: Many things, but perhaps the most important thing is to build local capacity, meaning train local forces, build the local defense institutions, defense ministries, command and control, because, in the long run, it is expected that local forces are stabilizing their own country, fighting terrorism themselves, instead of NATO deploying a large number of combat troops in combat operations.

And that’s NATO’s experience from Afghanistan. We have ended our combat operations there.


JENS STOLTENBERG: We train the local Afghans to fight terrorism themselves and think, in the long run, that’s a much more sustainable approach.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But that is — I think most observers now see Afghanistan as slipping back into chaos. The Taliban is stronger than many people say that it’s been in years. ISIS now has a foothold.

But you’re saying that that’s not a reason for NATO to get involved?

JENS STOLTENBERG: I’m saying that there are many difficult challenges in Afghanistan. And we still have Taliban. We still have terrorist organizations there, and we will see violence and we will see conflict there also in the coming years,.

But we have achieved at least two important things. Afghanistan is no longer a safe haven for international terrorists. We have a strong Afghan army, which is fighting the terrorists and Taliban. And the second thing is that they are able to do that without us being there to conduct the combat operations.

What NATO troops are doing in Afghanistan is to train, assist and advise Afghans, but they are actually doing the fighting. They are actually taking the responsibility for the security in their own country. And that is a great achievement, compared to what we saw just a few years ago, when NATO troops had to conduct the combat operations fighting the Taliban.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you think that war going in the right direction, though?

JENS STOLTENBERG: I think it is a very important step in the right direction that the Afghans have taken over responsibility for the security in their own country, and NATO being able to end its combat presence in Afghanistan.

But,of course, there are still many, many uncertainties, challenges and difficulties in Afghanistan. But we have to enable the Afghans to manage those challenges themselves. We cannot solve all the problems for the Afghans.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally, Mr. Secretary-General, a question about Turkey, which, as you know, is just days away from a referendum that would grant sweeping additional powers to President Erdogan, essentially making him — or allowing him to be immune from any oversight by the parliament or by the courts.

You know, there are those who are critics of his who are saying that this is going to lead to if it passes is NATO’s second largest standing army controlled, in essence, by someone who has dictatorial powers. How comfortable would you be with that?

JENS STOLTENBERG: Turkey’s a valued ally, important ally for NATO, not the least because of its strategic geographic location, bordering Syria and Iraq and close to Russia and the Black Sea.

And we have to remember Turkey has suffered many terrorist attacks, a failed coup attempt in July of last year, and is the ally most affected by the instability, the violence we see in Syria and Iraq.

Turkey has, of course, the right to protect itself against terrorism, against attacks, but I expect it to be done in a way which is in accordance with the rule of law, democratic values. And that is something I have expressed several times in meetings with the Turkish leaders.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jens Stoltenberg, who is the secretary-general for NATO, we thank you very much.

JENS STOLTENBERG: Thank you so much.