‘It’s Extremely Important That We Don’t Forget the Brutality’

NATO’s efforts to help Ukraine are not simply about military strength but about character, the alliance’s leader indicated.

Jens Stoltenberg sits with his arms folded in front of a map of the world.
Didier Vandenbosch

The Western world must prepare itself for a long war in Ukraine that will require ongoing support for Kyiv to guarantee Russia’s defeat, as well as reinforced defenses across Europe to ensure that Vladimir Putin does not underestimate NATO’s readiness to defend “every inch” of its territory, Jens Stoltenberg, the military alliance’s secretary-general, told me recently.

The warning came in an in-depth interview at his office on the outskirts of Brussels, as the Russian war machine, after months of failure, was beginning to make progress in its campaign in eastern Ukraine. “Of course it is emotional,” he continued, his anger visible, as we discussed the ongoing butchery along NATO’s borders. “This is about people being killed; it’s about atrocities; it’s about children, women being raped, children being killed.”

For Stoltenberg, however, using this emotion—rather than hiding it—is important. This emotion is the reason NATO has been able to mobilize such support for Ukraine against Russia—a conflict, Stoltenberg insisted, that affects security across the alliance. Although he wouldn’t say it quite so openly, he clearly believes that Ukraine is fighting not only for itself but for the civilized world, for the basic values of life and liberty, land and sovereignty. It is crucial, therefore, that the West continues to be outraged by Russia’s behavior, to not lose sight of Moscow’s barbarity as the war drags on. “In the middle of Europe, we have cities bombed, we have people that are our neighbors killed in the streets, massacred, and raped,” he said. “It’s extremely important that we don’t forget the brutality because that helps us mobilize the solidarity … which we need for the long haul.”

This was the crux of Stoltenberg’s point: The West needs to start digging in for a battle that is unlikely to end anytime soon, a test, he seemed to indicate to me, that was not just about military strength but about character.

And the reality, Stoltenberg admitted, is that Russia continues to make incremental territorial gains in Ukraine. Stoltenberg was also clear that the war is likely to end at the negotiating table and not, as some have hoped, with a kind of Second World War–style unconditional surrender of one side. Still, Stoltenberg rejected calls for the West to find Putin an honorable way out of the invasion, an “off-ramp” to save face and return to Moscow. Instead, he told me, it is crucial for Western security that Putin not be rewarded for his aggression.

Stoltenberg, who is already NATO’s longest-serving secretary-general in 40 years, was due to step down later this year but has agreed to stay on for another year to steer the alliance through its biggest challenge since the fall of the Soviet Union. After taking over in 2014, he quickly found himself tasked with convincing the most volatile and anti-European president in postwar American history of NATO’s merits. The deftness with which he performed this role earned him the respect of many in Europe who feared that Donald Trump would seek to pull the United States out of the alliance altogether. For some, he was the Trump whisperer, one of the few people—other than Putin and Xi Jinping—whom Trump seemed to respect.

Yet his legacy extends beyond this. After years of falling defense spending, all of the alliance’s members are increasing their military budgets; 40,000 troops stand ready under direct NATO command; the U.S. has expanded its presence in Europe; and the alliance’s eastern flank has been reinforced. Even more transformative changes are in the pipeline, with Sweden and Finland set to end their decades-long policy of neutrality by joining the bloc. Of course, much of this has been spurred by Russia’s invasion. Yet Stoltenberg, NATO officials and politicians have told me over the years, has been a capable steward of an often-unruly grouping.

At a NATO summit in Madrid next month, Stoltenberg will oversee further changes to meet the threats of what he said is a more dangerous world, beyond the alliance’s traditional turf. “NATO will remain the strongest alliance in history as long as we are able to continue to adapt,” Stoltenberg told me. “I’m absolutely confident that allies will be able to make decisions to ensure that we continue to adapt.” And this will include, for the first time in its history, articulating a focus on the threat from China.

Still, though the bloc’s response to Russia’s invasion seems to have reinvigorated its sense of unity, purpose, and mission, deepening its members’ commitment and even expanding its territory, there remains a curious contradiction and hesitance at the core of the alliance. This tension can be seen most clearly in NATO’s policy toward China, as the alliance grapples with its history as a regional grouping while facing a globalized world.

When I pressed Stoltenberg on how the war in Ukraine might end, he seemed to glide between two extremes that are sometimes on display within NATO—those, particularly in the U.S., who spy an opportunity not only to defeat Russia but to degrade it permanently, and those, mostly in Europe, pushing for a cease-fire and an acknowledgment from Kyiv that it will have to cede territory to Russia if there is to be any peace.

Stoltenberg appeared to advocate a kind of hawkish third way that fits with his image as the Tony Blair of Norway. “We know that most wars end at the negotiating table,” he said. “But what happens at the negotiating table is totally dependent on the situation on the battlefield, so we have to ensure that Ukraine has the strongest possible position to uphold the right to self-defense, to protect their sovereign nation, and that’s exactly what NATO allies are doing.” The point for Stoltenberg is to make sure whatever concessions Ukraine does make are on its terms.

And here is where we get into the fact that this war is unlikely to end anytime soon. While Russia has failed in its expansive initial war aims, it is now a “factual thing” that Moscow’s forces are making “incremental advances in [the] Donbas,” he told me. The future direction of the conflict would be hard to predict, but it is crucial for the West to match Putin’s commitment. “It’s extremely important that NATO and partners continue to provide support to Ukraine and that we are prepared for the long haul,” he said. “We can not let President Putin be rewarded for his brute military aggression. That would threaten all our security.”

The West, thus, has two fundamental tasks in Stoltenberg’s view. The first is to help Ukraine stand up to Russia, so that “President Putin does not succeed with his brutal use of force, violating international law, and the challenge to the rules-based order and to reestablish spheres of influence.” The second task, though, is to prevent the war from escalating, “leading to a full conflict in Europe between NATO and Russia.”

To achieve both, Stoltenberg argued, requires strength and commitment, not weakness and concession. Increasing NATO’s military presence and readiness is the only way to “remove any room for misunderstanding, miscalculation in Moscow, about our readiness to protect and defend all allies,” Stoltenberg said. The message to Moscow, he continued, is that the alliance will protect “every inch of NATO territory.”

Stoltenberg’s commitment to dealing with allies as they are, not as he may wish them to be, is perhaps what has made him a good leader for a grouping that seems at times unclear about how deeply it wants to help Ukraine. “Any secretary-general of NATO has to be able to speak to all the leaders,” he told me. “We are 30 countries, from both sides of the Atlantic, with different history, different geography, different political partners in charge.”

The key for Stoltenberg is ensuring that the bloc is strengthened, and, in his words, “institutionalized,” so that it can weather any political storm anywhere in the alliance. Though he didn’t say it, he clearly meant Trump. “If we are afraid of political leaders in Europe or in North America being elected that are not strong supporters of the strong transatlantic bond, then it makes it even more important that the transatlantic bond is institutionalized.”

Institutionalizing NATO would also allow the alliance to think beyond the current crisis to the long-term, strategic threats facing the West. That means not just Moscow but Beijing.

Russia’s invasion seems to have reestablished NATO’s raison d’être in a way that Putin does not appear to have expected. As Stoltenberg told me, the Russian president wanted less NATO, only to end up with a lot more NATO than has existed at any time since the end of the Cold War.

And yet underneath this newfound unity of purpose and mission remains a serious division on the new existential challenge facing the West: China. France and Germany want to forge their own European relationship with China, independent of the U.S. and, as much as possible, NATO. The U.S., Britain, and others, meanwhile, see China as a security threat that must be dealt with collectively by the West. Again, it falls to Stoltenberg to try to find a third way through this challenge.

When NATO leaders meet in Madrid next month, he said, he expects the alliance to focus not just on the conflict with Russia by strengthening the alliance’s deterrence—more troops, capabilities, and so on—but also on new realms of security such as cyber, space, and even climate change. In NATO’s most recent “strategic concept,” agreed on in 2010, China was not mentioned once. That will soon change. “In the strategic concept we will agree in Madrid, I’m certain that we will address China,” he told me.

Stoltenberg’s third way again does not quite fall within either the American-led or European-led camps with regard to China: He was quick to insist that dealing with the Chinese security challenge did not mean that NATO views Beijing as an “adversary.” Still, he added, the alliance needs to “address the security consequences of the fact that China now has the second-largest defense budget in the world, the biggest navy, [and] that they are investing heavily in new, modern capabilities.” Among these new capabilities, Stoltenberg listed nuclear weapons and long-range missiles that are capable of reaching “the whole of NATO.”

To reflect the reality of China’s power and challenge for the West, he told me, NATO will welcome core security partners from outside Europe and North America to the summit: Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and South Korea. Three of these four nations are also often invited to summits of the G7 group of advanced economies and, together with the European Union, form the core of the new “West” that stretches across the globe, a network of democratic countries allied to Washington. This is the loose (and voluntary) American empire of which Moscow and Beijing are so suspicious.

The danger for NATO, I suggested, was that rather than actually addressing some of the issues that left Ukraine in limbo—being close enough to NATO to concern its aggressive neighbor, but without the security guarantee that might have prevented this aggression—it risked globalizing them. “We have lots of difficult questions about this situation for vulnerable partners that are not members of NATO but are close partners, and some of them aspiring for NATO membership,” he replied, cautiously, appearing to concede the premise of the question without quite acknowledging whether he agreed or not. He was clear, however, that whatever the answer, nothing excused Russia’s behavior.

Still, aren’t we in danger of making the same mistake? I asked. Why not invite Australia to join the alliance, rather than just becoming closer allies? Wouldn’t this reflect the reality of the West and the shared threat posed by China? Here, though, NATO seems hesitant about how far it must adapt to the modern world.

“NATO is a regional alliance,” Stoltenberg said: “North America and Europe.” This was enshrined in NATO’s founding treaty and, he added, “I’ve seen no appetite in NATO to change the treaty.” The truth is that it’s not just about there being no appetite, but about a genuine divergence of opinion within the alliance about the extent of the Chinese threat generally, and the extent to which it is a threat to the West specifically. This is the crack in the Western world, which may yet grow over time into something more substantial—though that will be for one of Stoltenberg’s successors to grapple with.

The jockeying to replace Stoltenberg has already begun, with different cliques within the alliance pushing various cases as to why it is their turn: Southern European nations argue that after Stoltenberg and, before him, the former Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the next leader should be from the Mediterranean. In Britain and Turkey, officials fear that the French and the Germans will try to foist an “EU candidate” on the bloc, presenting a fait accompli candidate representing their interests. Eastern European countries, and the Baltics in particular, argue that there has never been a NATO secretary-general from the East. The alliance has also never been led by a woman, and it may be high time that this is corrected too. As ever, the U.S. will be the dominant actor, and will seek to broker a deal acceptable to all.

This choice will be important not simply because it will point to which powers are ascendant and which priorities will be placed foremost within the alliance. Each prior leader of NATO has imposed his will on the organization, and so the background and character of the next secretary-general will have a significant impact on NATO’s future. Stoltenberg is no exception.

As the interview was coming to a close, he gave me a tour of his somewhat sparse and modernist office (think Scandi bureaucracy). He showed me a shot of him as a young man with his father, a former Norwegian foreign minister, that sits behind his desk, and another of his children. Two others more clearly revealed the pain that has shaped his life and now shapes his response to the bloodiest war on European soil since 1945. On the wall opposite his desk hangs a photo of his friend Anna Lindh, the former prime minister of Sweden, who was murdered in 2003. And then, right beside his desk, is a calm, peaceful photograph of the Norwegian island of Utøya. The meaning behind the picture is, however, anything but calm and peaceful. This is the island where a neo-Nazi terrorist murdered 69 people in 2011, while Stoltenberg was Norway’s prime minister. The threat came perilously close to the secretary-general himself: The killer had already claimed eight other lives in Oslo with a van bomb targeting Stoltenberg’s office.

Stoltenberg is a well-dressed, controlled man. Yet underneath this calm Scandinavian exterior, you get a sense of anger and emotion—even of fury. When we talked about Ukraine, I noticed that he banged his hands on the table, a physical expression of his feelings. The two tragedies that have occurred on his watch—Utøya and Ukraine—are not directly comparable. Yet his life, and his leadership, has been influenced by both; he applies the appalling lessons he learned from one to his handling of the appalling reality of the other.

How does a peaceful society respond to brutal violence? How can unity be found in the face of such tragedy? How can people channel their fury, and how can they remember? “It doesn’t matter what kind of ideology or religion these people use; it’s about killing innocent people,” he told me, as he showed me the photograph of Utøya. Extremists of all stripes share the belief that “they can use force, they can kill people, to achieve their political goals.” This is Stoltenberg’s challenge as the war continues: to ensure that the West retains its resolve, that it remains united, and that it remembers.