NATO SECRETARY GENERAL JENS STOLTENBERG: ‘We do not mind that the Serbian Armed Forces are equipped with Russian'

‘Serbia is a sovereign state and we fully respect the security arrangements that it chooses. Defence procurements are a national decision.’

‘NATO fully respects Serbia’s policy of military neutrality. We do not mind that the Serbian Armed Forces are equipped with Russian and Chinese weaponry,’ Secretary General of the North Atlantic Alliance (NATO) Jens Stoltenberg says in an exclusive interview for Kurir. He points out that KFOR – a NATO mission – remains present in Kosovo with about 3,500 soldiers, who provide ‘a safe and secure environment, and freedom of movement for all communities.’ Addressing the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia, the head of the biggest military alliance in the world says that the past must not be forgotten, but that we should move forward and look towards a better future. He also reveals that NATO’s preparations for a potential second coronavirus wave are well under way, and that he has been working with the US on ‘a balanced response to the new Russian missiles, which are dangerous and undermine stability,’ acknowledging openly that the rise of China changes the global balance of power.

NATO is increasingly present in the Western Balkans. How do you comment on the views that the Alliance is ‘the guardian of stability and democracy’ in our region, i.e. that it prevents potential new conflicts here? Because, in addition to Kosovo, where many thousands of soldiers take care of the citizens’ safety, we can see that the situation is also not ideal in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which has been shown in many ways to be a non-functioning state. Then there is Montenegro, which has in recent months been shaken by internal tensions. 

The Euro-Atlantic security and stability in the Western Balkans are directly linked. Since the late 1990s, our forces have been helping maintain peace and stability in the region. Our offices in Sarajevo and Belgrade encourage the political dialogue and collaborate at the practical level. Several countries in the Western Balkans are NATO allies now. These countries were able to strengthen their democracy, bolster their security, increase their citizens’ safety, and improve their economy through new foreign investments. Our policy in the region, which includes our open-door policy, aims at strengthening stability and ramping up cooperation. We are determined to continue helping the countries in the region in the implementation of reforms, which benefits their citizens, as well as the entire Euro-Atlantic family.

As a result of the 1999 bombing, the majority of the citizens of Serbia do not have a favourable view of the Alliance and are against us joining this military alliance. The people expect NATO to admit that the bombing was a mistake, and to apologize for it. On the other hand, a few years ago you sent your condolences to the families who had lost their loved ones in 1999.

I am aware that NATO is still a controversial subject in Serbia. The memories of the 1999 air campaign are still painful to many, especially those who lost their loved ones. NATO initiated the 1999 operation in order to put a stop to the humanitarian disaster taking place in Kosovo, after more than a year of conflicts, many thousands of refugees going to the neighbouring countries, and multiple failures of the international diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict. Each innocent life lost is a tragedy, and I am deeply sorry for that. I have sent my condolences to the families and all who had lost their loved ones on both sides of the conflict. We must never forget the past, but we can move forward, and that is what NATO and Serbia are doing with this partnership – looking towards a better future.

Another topic is raised here from time to time – the link between the bombing and the subsequent increase in the number of cancer cases. How do you comment on this?

NATO takes the issues of health and the environment very seriously. This is why in 2001 it set up the Committee on Depleted Uranium. The Committee was a forum for the exchange of information on potential health risks related to depleted uranium. Based on independent evidence, the Committee concluded that the use of depleted uranium by NATO in the Kosovo conflict did not result in any permanent health risks. The report of the 2001 United Nations Environment Programme also concluded that the locations containing depleted uranium did not pose significant health risks. This has been proven scientifically and has not changed since 2001.

How does NATO view Serbia’s military neutrality? Serbia has decided not to join any military block or alliance.

NATO fully respects Serbia’s policy of military neutrality. At the same time, NATO and Serbia have for 14 years been close partners, and this partnership is based on a close political dialogue and practical cooperation. I am in regular contact with President Vučić and other leaders, and we have built a close cooperation in a number of areas, with the excellent work of our Military Liaison Office in Belgrade. For example, NATO and Serbia work together to increase civil protection preparedness in emergency situations, including floods and forest fires. In this connection, in 2018 I had the honour to inaugurate the civil emergency exercise titled Serbia 2018 together with President Vučić – our biggest emergency response exercise ever. We are helping Serbia develop its security forces and institutions. NATO trains Serbian soldiers for international peacekeeping missions, and in a 20-year period we have invested millions of euros to help Serbia destroy over 230 tons of obsolete ammunition. Serbia and NATO have also worked together in training Iraqi medical corps, supporting the Iraqi Armed Forces in this way. We welcome this mutually beneficial partnership with Serbia, and we are ready to develop it further. We already have strong ties with non-member partners, such as Austria and Finland. We fully respect their decision not to join NATO, as we respect others’ decision to join it.

In recent years Serbia has been comprehensively equipping its armed forces, mostly with weaponry from Russia and China. Does the Alliance mind?

No, we do not mind. As I have said, Serbia is a sovereign state, and we fully respect the security arrangements that it chooses. NATO and Serbia are close partners. We have already developed an excellent cooperation in the area of defence and security, in which we help the Serbian Armed Forces to strengthen their capacity. Defence procurements are a national decision. At the same time, in conducting procurements it is important to pay attention to overall costs related to the total lifespan of the equipment, as they can be quite high.

How big a security risk is Kosovo in this region? Will KFOR, your mission in Kosovo, remain present in its current capacity, or is there a plan to reduce the number of troops? At one point, there were stories floating around in the media about the possible closing of the Bondsteel military base.

NATO is fully committed to Kosovo’s security. KFOR has been successfully operating for over two decades, greatly contributing to the stability and security of Kosovo and the Western Balkans. We regularly review our mission. All the allies agree that we should keep the current, app. 3,500-strong, force from 26 countries, including NATO member-states and partners. In line with the United Nations mandate, our KFOR mission will continue to provide a safe and secure environment and freedom of movement for all the communities in Kosovo. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, KFOR has maintained its ability to execute daily operations. NATO also fully respects the continuation of the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina under the auspices of the EU. This is crucially important for Serbia and Kosovo, for regional peace and security, as well as for our security. Last week I pointed this out again in a meeting with Avdullah Hoti [author’s note: Prime Minister of Kosovo] at the NATO headquarters. I also talked with him about the important agreement concluded in Washington on the normalization of the economic relations between Belgrade and Pristina.

The authorities in Pristina are not giving up on establishing an army of Kosovo. Is that acceptable to you?

I said back in December 2018 that it was not a good time for that move and that the decision had been made despite my advice. NATO continues to support the development of the Kosovo Security Force in accordance with its current mandate. In addition to a change of mandate, the North Atlantic Alliance is also reviewing the level of involvement of NATO with the Kosovo Security Force. Allies continue to have talks on this topic. We are still fully committed to the security in Kosovo and regional stability. I have pointed out on a number of occasions that both Belgrade and Pristina should make sure that there are no tensions in the region, refrain from statements or actions which may result in an escalation, and stay focused on progress, alongside reforms and dialogue.

The Alliance and you yourself support the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina on Kosovo, held in Brussels under the auspices of the European Union. In your opinion, can this dialogue lead to a sustainable solution, which both parties would be happy with, if we can see that Pristina keeps insisting that Belgrade recognize Kosovo’s independence, which is unacceptable to our country?

A constructive dialogue is a precondition for regional stability, and I support the efforts of the EU to mediate the dialogue. In addition, I welcome the progress made in Washington. Our KFOR mission will continue to provide a safe and secure environment in Kosovo, in line with its UN mandate. I believe that the future of the entire Western Balkans region lies with the Euro-Atlantic family.

What are the biggest challenges that the Alliance is facing today? Is the military and economic strengthening of China and Russia the main threat to NATO? At a meeting, NATO openly pointed to the rise of China as one of the common challenges of the modern world.

The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the existing trends and tensions regarding our security. The rise of China changes the global balance of power, poses a challenge for open societies and individual freedoms, and consequently increases the competition between our values and ways of life. Both state and non-state actors promote disinformation and propaganda. In relation to this, since the start of the coronavirus crisis, we have seen similar types of disinformation originating from Russia and China. Bearing this in mind, I started my reflections on NATO 2030. My NATO 2030 vision is to keep the Alliance strong militarily, and make it stronger and more global politically. Continuing to invest in our armed forces and military capabilities, NATO has kept us safe for over 70 years. NATO is a forum to discuss and act on issues affecting our shared security, a place where we are working even more closely with partners and like-minded countries to defend our values in an environment of increased global competition. To that end, I have appointed a group consisting of five women and five men and asked them to come up with new ideas. I will continue to actively consult with the allies, the civil society, the private sector, and young leaders. When the time comes for the NATO leaders to meet next year, my recommendations will help set the direction that the NATO leaders will steer.

The influence is these two countries is rising in the Western Balkans too. How do you comment on that?

Generally speaking, security and stability in the Western Balkans are important for NATO and for the peace and stability in Europe. We are determined to continue helping the countries in the region in implementing reforms. This will benefit their citizens and the entire Euro-Atlantic family. Ultimately, the countries of the region should have the option of making independent political decisions, in the direction of their choosing, as well as of maintaining their full political integrity without any third-party interference. It is up to these countries to decide together with NATO how they wish to develop their partnerships with NATO. No third country has the right of veto in this regard.

It has often been said that the Alliance has doubts about the US’s commitment to the military alliance. It is a fact that it has been made possible for the US to set aside less funds for the NATO budget. How happy are you with the cooperation with Donald Trump’s administration?

NATO is founded on the connection between Europe and North America, which stand together and defend each other. The USA has clearly expressed its strong commitment to NATO, in words and actions. The US leads a NATO task force in Poland. It is present in Romania and Norway, and has based ballistic missile defence destroyers in Spain. We have also seen a number of US exercises and its increased presence in the air and at sea. Furthermore, the United States invests billions of dollars in its military presence in Europe. Together we work on a balanced response to the new Russian missiles, which are dangerous and undermine stability. In this regard, we welcome the talks between the US and Russia on arms control, and agree that it is high time China, as a global rising power, started to take part in arms control. All this clearly indicates the US’s commitment to stand by its European allies.

The world is still fighting against the coronavirus. How big a challenge is this pandemic for the Alliance?

The COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented challenge for our nations, and continues to have a significant impact on our people and the economy. Regardless, we have managed to find a way to respond to this challenge. Taken together, the armed forces from the entire Alliance have had over 100 flights transporting medical personnel and hundreds of tons of supplies; they have helped construct field hospitals, including the preparation of tens of thousands of hospital beds. In addition, the armed forces of the Alliance have deployed and made available thousands of medical corps and medical workers in order to support the civilian efforts. Since the start of the pandemic, the Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre, which is NATO’s principal emergency response mechanism, has coordinated the requests put in by 16 NATO member-states and partners, resulting in tens of offers of assistance. NATO, individual member-states, and partners have also provided very important medical assistance to the Western Balkans countries, including Serbia.

The second wave of the pandemic is expected in the autumn…

We are preparing for a potential second wave of COVID-19. At the meeting of our defence ministers in June, the Alliance agreed an operational plan for Operation Allied Hand, allowing us to prepare in the best way possible and be ready to help the member-states and partners. We are stockpiling medical supplies and setting up a trust fund to procure materials and equipment for providing immediate assistance. We have also updated our guidelines for the national adaptation, response, and recovery plans, ensuring in this way a strong and functional supply chain and safe telecommunications, and reducing the vulnerability of the critical infrastructure, in order for our societies to be more prepared to face the future crises and to recover from them.

Billions for arms

MILITARY BUDGET HIGHEST EVER

NATO has an exceptionally large budget, which is increasing annually. You said once, for illustration purposes, that it is 20 times bigger than the military budget of Russia.

After years of significant military budget reductions, now we are adding billions to them. In real terms, 22 allies have spent more on new military equipment in 2019 than in 2018, while 16 allies fulfilled the NATO guidelines on spending no less than 20 percent of the military budget on military equipment. 2019 was the fifth consecutive year of the real growth of defence expenditures of the European member-states and Canada. By the end of this year, the total increase will stand at 130 billion US dollars, and by the end of 2024 this amount will increase to 400 billion US dollars. Something like this has never been seen before. However, it is necessary for us to maintain this trend in a world which is becoming less predictable.

Memories of the life in Belgrade

SERBIAN DISHES ARE AMAZING

FOTO: NATO

You spent a few years in Belgrade. What are your recollections of that time? What is your first association with our capital?

I still have very colourful and fond memories of the time I spent in Belgrade, where I lived for a few years in my childhood. I have kept close ties to this country. I still remember the amazing Serbian dishes like ćevapčići and stuffed peppers, and I remember the delicious ice-cream too. Also, I remember many good friends that we met back then, some of whom were POWs in Norway during the Second World War. When I was last in Belgrade, reuniting with some of them was very touching.