Jens Stoltenberg: Russia Has No Say on Georgia’s NATO Membership


I am certain we will find ways to deal with [the issue of Georgia’s occupied territories], said NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in an exclusive interview for the Institute of War and Peace Reporting when he visited Georgia on 25 March to observe NATO and Georgian forces training together. “We should not speculate much because I think too much speculation just adds to the uncertainty,” he added when asked to share his thoughts on a foreign policy article published by Georgia’s Ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili, who opined that the next countries likely to experience a military threat from the Kremlin would be Finland or Sweden, the two non-NATO members in Scandinavia. GEORGIA TODAY is publishing the full version of the interview with the permission of the Institute of War and Peace Reporting, where the interview was originally published.

The official NATO line is that no country can interfere with another country's choice to become a NATO member, but lately we’ve seen some comments from the Kremlin that even cooperation might spell unpleasant surprises for Georgia.

I think we see Russia trying to re-establish a system of spheres of influence, where big powers like itself have some kind of right or mandate to interfere in what neighbors can or cannot do. This has never been a good thing; this has always been the wrong approach because every nation, small or big, has the same right to decide its own future and this is enshrined in a lot of documents which Russia has also subscribed to, the Helsinki Final Act, for example, a document which defined the rights of all nations to choose their own path, including to decide whether they would like to be part of a security alliance or not. Russia dislikes that, and that's their position. But we adhere to the principle of every sovereign nation’s right to decide on its own path, including Georgia.

But when somebody tells you “don't do this or there will be unpleasant surprises,” is that not intimidation?

It reflects an attitude from Russia which I deeply disagree with; mainly, that they have the right to decide what Georgia or another neighbor can do. Georgia is a sovereign country, an independent nation and, of course, Georgia then decides what kind of cooperation it wants with other countries, neighbors and NATO. Norway joined NATO in 1949; at that time the Soviet Union didn't like the fact, but Norway did so anyway. Russia has protested heavily every time NATO has been enlarged- with the Baltic countries, Poland, Romania and now we saw it again recently when Montenegro joined. Russia protested North Macedonia joining, but North Macedonia is still joining; and, of course, it's for Georgia, and of course the NATO allies, to decide what level of cooperation activities are wanted between themselves. Russia doesn't have any say in that.

Georgia has an overwhelming majority supporting NATO and EU integration but there are also skeptics. If something happens and these Russian “surprises” do materialize, what kind of assurances can they count on from NATO?

NATO supports Georgia politically; we support Georgia’s sovereignty and integrity; we provide significant practical support with presence in different ways in Georgia- with exercises, as the country is part of our readiness force, and there is a training center and the NATO-Georgia Commission; we have an annual national program; we have NATO trainers and advisors here in Georgia, many of them directly working for NATO while others work for NATO allies, but still it's part of the broader NATO support to Georgia. So, it's obvious that NATO is already in Georgia; there is more NATO in Georgia than ever before because it is part of our missions and operations in many places.

The Washington Post recently published a piece saying a huge military facility will be built in Poland to deter Russia from venturing into Europe. What are the red lines for Russia when it comes to NATO?

We don’t accept that they define red lines for what sovereign nations can do. We will always be a defensive alliance and of course we will always respect the territorial integrity of our neighbors and we will never force any country to join NATO; we have excellent neighbors, partners like Sweden and Finland, Austria and Serbia, which have clearly stated that they don't want to become NATO members. That's their decision. Sweden and Serbia both neighbor NATO but decided they want to remain outside the Alliance. That's a decision we absolutely respect because NATO has never been in the business of forcing others to do something they don't want. We welcome the fact that these countries are neutral countries in Europe, our close partners who made a decision based on democratic processes.

Ex-President Saakashvili recently opined that the next countries to face a threat from Russia will be Finland and Sweden. What are your thoughts on this?

We shouldn’t speculate much because I think too much speculation just adds to the uncertainty and may actually increase tensions. Our aim is to reduce tensions, to calm the situation and actually work for a better relationship with Russia. I know from my previous position as PM of Norway that it is possible to work with Russia; we did so for decades, even in the coldest period of the Cold War: Norway worked with Russia on border issues in the north, on energy, on fishing, on military cooperation. But that was not despite NATO, it was because of NATO; NATO gave us the strength and the unity that enabled us, as a small neighbor of Russia, to sit down and work with Russia. We should not increase tensions, we should try to reduce tensions and to continue to work for a better relationship with Russia and that's the reason NATO has a three-pronged approach: deterrence, defense and dialogue. We see threats from terrorist attacks, from cyberattacks, but we don't see any imminent threat against any NATO allies.

To follow up on the notion of working with Russia; based on its government and what it is doing, do you see them as feasible partners in the foreseeable future?

Russia has to change its behavior. I'm always very reluctant to predict when things may happen. I think that NATO has to be prepared wherever Russia continues to confront us and that's why we are implementing the biggest reinforcement of collective defense in our history with combat troops in the eastern part of the Alliance. We are modernizing the command structure and have increased defense spending. We’ve done a lot to strengthen our collective defense in response to Russia’s aggressive actions against Ukraine but at the same time we are open for dialogue, for working with Russia, and it's up to Russia to decide. I'm very careful about predicting too much as to when Russia may change its behavior; it's impossible to say anything with certainty. No-one was able to predict the fall of the Berlin Wall, we couldn’t predict 9/11 or the illegal annexation of Crimea. We just have to be prepared for the unforeseen; we need a strategy to deal with uncertainty, with surprises. That strategy is a strong NATO because NATO reduces risks and NATO enables us to deal with surprises where they happen. Georgia is working with NATO on this and is moving towards membership.

Your predecessor said that the breakaway regions recognized by Russia act as an obstacle towards Georgia's membership in NATO. Do you agree?

The first and most important message is that NATO recognizes the territorial integrity of Georgia within its recognized international borders; second, we call on Russia to withdraw its forces from Abkhazia and South Ossetia and to stop recognizing them; third, NATO made the decision that Georgia will become a member and we have reiterated that many times. So, I’m pretty certain we will find ways to deal with it. The important thing now for Georgia is to focus on the reforms, to improve its democratic institutions, to mobilize defense and security institutions and then we will continue to work on the commitment of NATO to support the country on its path.

If reforms are the deciding factor, how did countries like Montenegro and (soon) North Macedonia become NATO members? Georgia’s democratic standards and rankings are not far behind, if not above, them.

These countries implemented significant reforms. At the end of the day, it’s a political decision and every aspirant country has to be assessed on its own merits. The only thing Georgia can do is to continue to implement reforms and to modernize its defense and security sector, as we are doing here at the NATO training center, to work with us to meet our standards. That's the only way towards membership. Then, to become a member, we need consensus; we need the political conditions in place. I can't say exactly when that will happen, but I can say that all NATO allies agreed that Georgia will become a member and as soon as political conditions are in place, then it should be ready to join. The good thing with reform is that Georgia can reform not only to please NATO, but because it's good for society; it makes Georgia more resilient, it makes Georgia’s democratic institutions stronger and makes the Armed Forces better and on top of that, it helps Georgia move towards both NATO and the European Union.

Why are some NATO allies against Georgia getting membership?

I won’t go into specific arguments from different NATO allies; all allies agree that Georgia must continue to implement reforms, to strengthen different security institutions, democratic institutions. NATO will help; we are extremely grateful for the partnership with Georgia, not least because it contributes so much to our security: as we very often say, when our neighbors are stable, we are more secure and Georgia is now really addressing some of the challenges in this region, and nationwide, in a very impressive way. That's good for Georgia and for NATO. Georgia has been present in Afghanistan for many years; today, I met some soldiers wounded in a NATO mission in Afghanistan, and of course we are grateful, we pay respect to all those from Georgia who served in NATO missions and operations.

By Vazha Tavberidze

04 April 2019 18:01