NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg "Two Percent Is the Minimum of What We Need"
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Stoltenberg, when you visited Ukraine last month, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called on the West to supply his country with more long-range weapons, Western fighter jets and tanks. Is Ukraine getting enough support from NATO?
Stoltenberg: NATO’s allies are providing an unprecedented level of support to Ukraine. They are supplying battle tanks, armored vehicles, modern artillery and advanced air defense systems. Germany is playing a key role in this with the delivery of Leopard-2 tanks and air defense systems such as Iris-T and Patriot. In addition, NATO partners have trained and equipped nine Ukrainian brigades over the last two months. The allies are delivering.
Jens Stoltenberg, born in 1959, has been NATO Secretary General since October 2014. The former Norwegian prime minister was supposed to have left office last September, but extended his term by one year because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. A potential successor has not yet been named.
DER SPIEGEL: What Europeans and Americans are not delivering, however, despite Ukraine's constant requests, are Western fighter jets. Is that a mistake?
Stoltenberg: The supply of weapons has evolved as the war has evolved. In the beginning, it was extremely important to deliver light anti-tank weapons. Then the focus was on howitzers and air-defense systems, after which it was on tanks.
DER SPIEGEL: Will fighter jets also be on the table soon, at the latest when Ukraine begins its counteroffensive?
Stoltenberg: Some countries, such as Poland and Slovakia, have already delivered fighters jets, albeit old Soviet-designed MiG-29s. We are constantly discussing the question of whether modern Western fighter jets are also necessary – both in NATO and with Ukraine. I expect that the issue will also be discussed at the NATO defense ministers' meeting in June. But just as important as supplying weapons platforms is sustaining them. There is an enormous amount of ammunition, spare parts and maintenance capacity that needs to be there every day, 24/7.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 21/2023 (May 20th, 2023) of DER SPIEGEL.
DER SPIEGEL: The Russians have the same problems. How do you assess the strength of Putin's armed forces?
Stoltenberg: The Russians have poor morale, bad equipment, bad training, bad logistics and bad leadership. But what they lack in quality, they often make up for in quantity. And we also need to realize that the Russians have suffered significant losses in Ukraine, equipment and personnel, but their air forces and their naval forces are more or less intact. The same goes for their cyber capabilities.
DER SPIEGEL: Do you think the Ukrainians will have enough materiel in time for their spring offensive to force Vladimir Putin to the negotiating table?
Stoltenberg: The Ukrainians have already proven in the north of their country, in Kharkiv, and in the south, in Kherson, that they are capable of liberating occupied territories. Now, we are enabling them to liberate more territory. Of course, operational decisions on how and when to launch an offensive must be made by the Ukrainians.
DER SPIEGEL: In March, the European Union member states promised to provide Ukraine with 1 million pieces of artillery ammunition within 12 months. They are still a long way from that, and the planned joint purchase of ammunition isn’t working either.
Stoltenberg: I welcome that the EU is stepping up and coordinating efforts on the ammunition deliveries of its members. The war in Ukraine has demonstrated the gaps we have in our stockpiles, but also in our production capacity. We are now addressing this in NATO ,as well. Germany, France, the United States, Norway and several others have now signed contracts with the industry that enable them to increase production. In the long run, however, there is only one way to increase capacity: We need to invest more.
DER SPIEGEL: You have advocated for the alliance to set 2 percent of gross domestic product as the minimum threshold for defense spending. But this 2-percent target was set nine years ago, and yet only seven of the then 30 member states had achieved it as of last year. What is the point of setting new targets if the old ones aren’t even met?
Stoltenberg: The agreement we reached together in Wales in 2014 has made a significant difference. Until then, defense spending was going down. Since then, it has been going up, although not as much as I would like.
DER SPIEGEL: Germany still hasn’t reached 2 percent.
Stoltenberg: Germany, like many other allies, has expressed its intention to achieve the 2 percent as quickly as possible.
DER SPIEGEL: At the moment, it doesn't look as if the German government will be able to keep this promise in the longer term.
Stoltenberg: I expect all those allies who have not yet reached the 2 percent to do so soon as possible. And I welcome Germany's clear commitment to invest more in defense and spend 100 billion euros that has been put aside for defense investment. Germany has decided to purchase fifth-generation fighter aircraft and helicopters. It wants to strengthen air defenses. We all know that this takes some time. But at least Germany is now moving in the right direction.
DER SPIEGEL: If the 2-percent agreement has indeed made a difference, why not set more ambitious targets, 2.5 or 3 percent, which could further accelerate the development?
Stoltenberg: Well, again, this is for NATO heads of state and government to decide. But my recommendation and what I expect is that allies will agree to a stronger commitment. Even if we don't change the number, it has taken on a different meaning: In the future, 2 percent will no longer be the target, but the absolute minimum, a floor, that everyone should achieve – not in a decade, but as soon as possible.
DER SPIEGEL: The German government argues that it’s less a matter of having a specific number than of providing the necessary military capabilities.
Stoltenberg: The 2 percent isn’t a random number. All allies have agreed to certain capabilities that they feel are absolutely necessary. These include artillery, tanks, ammunition, logistics, aircraft, ships, submarines, communications, all that is necessary for the defense of our members. If you take that into account, 2 percent is the minimum of what we need.
DER SPIEGEL: Each NATO member state has committed to providing certain capabilities to the alliance. Why don't you make it transparent once a year which government is meeting its commitments, and which is not?
Stoltenberg: We try to be as transparent as possible. At the same time, when it comes to exact capabilities, we will never give a potential adversary the privilege of having access to all those numbers.
DER SPIEGEL: When you were in Kyiv, Zelenskyy said that now was the time to give Ukraine a clear perspective for NATO accession. What do you expect from the NATO summit in Vilnius in mid-July in this respect?
Stoltenberg: I cannot anticipate the decisions of the heads of state and government, but what I can say is that all the NATO countries agree that Ukraine should become a member of NATO. That was stated clearly at the summit last year and reiterated in December. But the most urgent task now is to help Kyiv in the military conflict.
DER SPIEGEL: That could take a long time. Could you imagine NATO abandoning its unwritten law not to admit any country with unresolved conflicts into the alliance?
Stoltenberg: We must ensure that Russia doesn’t continue to attack a sovereign, independent nation in Ukraine. There are several proposals that have been put on the table. The Kyiv Security Compact, drafted by a group of experts including Ukraine and my predecessor Anders Fogh Rasmussen, proposes strengthening Ukraine's own defense and deterrence capabilities. This is to be done through large-scale arms deliveries and long-term investment in Ukrainian defense capabilities. Other countries are in favor of direct assurances. We need to discuss this in detail.
DER SPIEGEL: It's possible that the war will come to a stalemate after the Ukrainian offensive and that we'll have what's called a "frozen conflict," a situation in which there is no major military conflict, but the conflict continues to smolder. Do you fear that support for Ukraine in the West will then wane?
Stoltenberg: President Putin made two big strategic mistakes when he invaded Ukraine. One was to totally underestimate the Ukrainians, the Ukrainian people, the armed forces and the political leadership. But he also underestimated NATO and its partners. I am impressed by the unity and resolve in NATO allies and partners in providing support for Ukraine. NATO will support Ukraine for as long as it takes.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (center) with DER SPIEGEL journalists Ralf Neukirch and Markus Becker in Stoltenberg's office in BrusselsFoto: Justin Jin / DER SPIEGEL
DER SPIEGEL: That could change if the conflict drags on for a long time. We are already seeing the first signs of that.
Stoltenberg: Of course, in 31 democracies there are different voices, there may be different opinions, and you always hear that that’s part of democratic societies. But I have confidence that our open societies realize how dangerous a Putin victory would be for freedom, for democracy or for plurality. If Putin wins in Ukraine, it will send the message that when authoritarian leaders use military power, they get what they want.
DER SPIEGEL: You wanted to step down as NATO secretary general a year ago and then gave in to the member states’ requests asking you continue in office for a year longer. How confident are you that you will know who your successor is going to be in Vilnius?
Stoltenberg: I am absolutely confident that the allies will find an excellent and good successor for me.
DER SPIEGEL: Would you extend again if asked?
Stoltenberg: I have no plans other than to end my term this fall.