The recent selection of former Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg as the next leader of NATO has won broad support, now also from Russian President Vladimir Putin. That may help ease the tensions that Putin himself has ignited with European and NATO leaders by annexing Crimea and continuing to intimidate Ukraine.
Putin told the Russian television channel Rossija over the weekend that he considers Stoltenberg “a very serious and responsible person.” Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported that Putin added he and Stoltenberg, known mostly as “Jens” among Norwegians and world leaders alike, “have very good relations, including personal relations.” Those relations were formed not least during Stoltenberg’s eight years as Norway’s premier when Norway and Russia settled key territorial issues in the Arctic and agreed to cooperate in several other areas, but the two got to know each other when both had taken over state leadership roles for the first time back in 2000.
Putin’s comments immediately prompted speculation that relations between Russia and NATO may improve when Stoltenberg takes over as the military alliance’s secretary general in October. Putin added, however, that he wants “to see how Stoltenberg will develop the relations in his new position.”
Stoltenberg has also gotten along well with Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s former president and current prime minister, who called Stoltenberg the equivalent of a “nice guy” earlier this year. It was Medvedev and Stoltenberg who officially signed the border agreement that now defines Russian and Norwegian territory in the Barents Sea.
‘Good working relationship’
Stoltenberg’s seemingly good relations with both Putin and Medvedev bode well after months of tension and reportedly difficult personal relations between Putin and NATO’s current secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen. Putin otherwise stressed to the Russian TV channel that “nothing” hinders a normalization of relations between Russia and western leaders.
Stoltenberg was reluctant to comment on Putin’s comments and has been careful to avoid getting directly involved in NATO issues as long as Rasmussen remains boss. “NATO has only one leader,” Stoltenberg has said, making it clear that he won’t play a role in NATO operations until he assumes his post.
NATO has, however, condemned Russia’s intervention in Ukraine as has Norway, which was one of the founding members of NATO. As its new secretary general, Stoltenberg will be expected to also condemn such disregard for territorial integrity and support nervous NATO members who share a border with Russia.
Stoltenberg told NRK that he agrees with Putin that the two have “a good tone” but described it as a “good working relationship” that won’t prevent “clear speech” when the need arises. He stressed that Norway has long had good relations with Russia, and that he aims to carry over such cooperation in his new role at NATO as well.