‘The risk of a conflict with Russia is real’

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The foreign ministers of NATO member countries including Norway have rejected Russia’s demands that Ukraine forever be denied membership in the defense alliance. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg claimed “the risk of a conflict is real,” as the Russian military build-up along its border to Ukraine continued this week.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, a former Norwegian prime minister, led the extraordinary meeting of NATO members’ foreign ministers on Friday, before NATO also meets Russian envoys next week. PHOTO: NATO

Stoltenberg led an extraordinary meeting of all the NATO foreign ministers Friday afternoon, after which he referred to Russia’s “threatening rhetoric” and “a track record of using force against neighbours.” He said Russia’s “aggressive actions seriously undermine the security order in Europe,” calling the troop build-up ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin both “unjustified and unprovoked.”

Norway is also one of Russia’s neighbours in its northeasternmost region. Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt of the Labour Party told newspaper VG after the meeting that there had been “no changes” in Russia’s military force close to Norwegian territory. “There is still low tension in the High North,” Huitfeldt said, quoting Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre’s ongoing goal to keep tensions with Russia low and even friendly in their own neighbouring northern areas.

‘Preparing for the worst’
Huitfeldt nonetheless called the situation Putin has created through Russia’s build-up against Ukraine “difficult and demanding, you just get more and more worried.” She said there was “considerable fear” of a Russian attack on Ukraine, also telling Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that she and her fellow NATO ministers were “preparing for the worst.” Norway, meanwhile, has been beefing up its own defense in its northern regions of Finnmark and Troms.

Any attack by Russia, meanwhile, “will have great political and economic consequences for Russia,” Huitfeldt said. She and the other NATO foreign ministers “flatly rejected” Russia’s demand (one of several recently issued) that Ukraine never be offered membership in NATO, stressing as did many of her colleagues that every sovereign nation has the right to determine its own security policy. Stoltenberg also stressed that NATO “respects each country’s right to choose its own way,” making it clear that European security policy is not up for negotiation.

The extraordinary meeting of all 30 NATO members took place both in Brussels and digitally on Friday afternoon. On Wednesday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg will host another meeting with Russia, also in Brussels. PHOTO: NATO

That’s been made especially clear this week after both Finland and Sweden reacted strongly to another demand from Russia that NATO be closed to all new members. While Norway, Denmark and Iceland are among NATO’s 12 founding members from 1949, the two other Nordic countries have so far remained outside the alliance. Both retain the right, however, to apply for membership in NATO if their national assemblies determine that’s in their best interests. Both have been highly offended by Russia’s recent moves to try denying them that right.

“It’s up to us in Sweden to decide our own security policy and with whom we choose to cooperate,” an indignant Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said this week. Finland’s President Sauli Väinämö also thinks NATO’s “open door policy” is important. Stoltenberg said he’d spoken with both Andersson and Väinämö earlier on Friday.

At least one ‘positive signal’
Stoltenberg called it “a positive signal,” though, “that Russia is now prepared to come to the table and talk, because when tensions are high, dialogue is even more important.” Friday afternoon’s meeting of the NATO foreign ministers will be followed next week with a series of meetings between Russian and US officials in Geneva on Sunday and Monday, then between Russia and NATO on Wednesday and finally between Russia and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on Thursday.

Stoltenberg claimed NATO is “always ready to listen to Russian concerns,” which have included a stronger NATO presence in neighbouring member countries like Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. Russia hasn’t been happy with the US’ increasing presence in Norway either. Stoltenberg said NATO would “make every effort to find a political way forward.”

He added, however, that “for dialogue to be meaningful, it must also address (the NATO) allies’ long-standing concerns about Russia’s actions,” not least its invasion and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014. Russia continues to suffer economic sanctions tied to its subsequent occupation of Crimea. Norway has also joined in additional sanctions against Russia tied to Putin’s harassment of opposition politicians. Both Norway and NATO have promised to support Ukraine as well.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund