Those who fear escalation of war by supporting Ukraine need to understand that there is no risk-free option. The biggest risk of all is to let President Putin win, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in an interview with "Ukraina stuudio" on February 24.
Mr. Stoltenberg, you have witnessed our celebration of freedom since the early hours of the morning. Please describe your experience and how it made you feel.
It has been a great experience to see how you celebrate your country's Independence Day and how you value your independence. It is important for Estonia, of course, but it is also important for all of us because Ukrainians are fighting for their freedom at the moment, and I think it is symbolic that it is your Independence Day, that you fought for your freedom, and that the same fight is going on in Ukraine.
Where was the last time you spoke with President Vladimir Putin? And what did you discuss?
It has been years since I last met him and had a conversation with him, because the dialogue and the improvement of relations that we worked on with Russia for many years after the end of the Cold War have now been abandoned. And, of course, after the invasion of Ukraine, there can be no meaningful dialogue with Russia.
Should Putin face a tribunal or be invited to peace talks?
All those who have committed crimes must be held to account. But this would be a legal process. No one can say today how the war in Ukraine will end. However, we know that the only way to reach a meaningful negotiation is to make President Putin understand that they will not win on the battlefield. The more we want to see results from peace talks, in which Ukraine retains its sovereignty as a state, the more important it is today to give Ukraine weapons.
So we have to be prepared to negotiate with a war criminal?
It is up to Ukraine to decide. Our task is to support and help them. Nobody knows, how or when the war will end. But many wars end at the negotiating table. However, we know that what happens behind the negotiating table depends totally and inextricably on the situation on the battlefield. So, again, if we want Ukraine to reach a solution where they remain a sovereign nation, military support for Ukraine is essential now.
What is Ukraine lacking today to win the war?
First, they are now preparing for offensives. So they need more mass. Ukraine has many advanced weapons systems, but we can see that it is not only a question of getting new platforms but also of getting them all operational in Ukraine.
Large artillery pieces, air defense systems, battle tanks, infantry fighting vehicles—they all need a lot of ammunition, fuel, spare parts and maintenance to be able to operate for a long period of time. So the most important thing at the moment is to increase the mass, the numbers of weapons, and the ammunition needed to launch an offensive.
Why are we just now justifying the tanks and planes that Ukraine asked us for almost a year ago? Are we still held back by fear of Russia?
There is no doubt that our support for Ukraine has evolved with the war. We started with light weapons like javelins, anti-tank missiles, stingers and light anti-aircraft weapons, then moved on to more sophisticated air defense systems, heavy artillery and long-range systems like HIMARS. Now we have infantry-armored fighting vehicles and battle tanks.
How do you justify this? Ukraine has always wanted more, and we always give them less than they need.
This is why we need to ensure the cooperation first and foremost. The support of NATO allies and partners has been unprecedented. I think it is also important for us to understand that those who fear escalation, those who say that by supporting Ukraine we risk escalation, need to understand that there is no risk-free option. The biggest risk of all is to let President Putin win. We therefore need to ensure that we give Ukraine sufficient support.
What has the free world learned from this conflict? We could have saved tens of thousands of lives in Ukraine if the West had acted faster.
The most important lesson is that we need to invest in security to strengthen our deterrence and defense capabilities.
We also realized how important it is not to be too dependent on authoritarian regimes, for example, Russian gas. We will certainly not make the same mistake in our economic relations with China.
And thirdly, perhaps the most important lesson is that North America and Europe must be united, as we are in NATO. For it is the combined strength of North America and Europe that is now, in an unprecedented way, supporting Ukraine.
Given the size and capacity of Estonia, slow political processes in Brussels may pose an existential threat to our freedom. How can we be certain that NATO will act as soon as Estonia requires it?
NATO is already here. When we are here, we send a very clear message that an attack against our ally, Estonia, will be met by the whole organization. We have ground forces here, but also considerable air and naval forces. In addition, Finland and Sweden will become members of NATO further strengthening NATO's presence and security in the region.
Thank you very much for this interview, and thank you for celebrating our [Independence Day] in Estonia with us.
Thank you for inviting me.
Editor: Merili Nael, Kristina Kersa