Stressing that “Russia is our neighbour,” Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre spent “around an hour” on the phone Thursday with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Støre, a veteran diplomat who’s met with Putin in the past, says he made it clear that the war Putin launched in Ukraine must end.
“My impression was that it was possible to get through to him and that he listened,” Støre said at a press conference following the phone call that Støre made at his own initiative, but after “discussions” with allies in the other Nordic countries, elsewhere in Europe and in the US.
“We clearly have different views on what led to this war, and on what’s happening on the ground,” Støre said. He added, however, that Putin “seemed objective with his arguments. He got a tough message in return. This is an extraordinary situation in European history, therefore I used strong words. He listened to them.”
Støre, a highly educated expert on international relations, spent seven years as Norway’s foreign minister when current NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg was Norway’s prime minister. Norway’s northernmost areas where it shares a border to Russia, and the Arctic region as a whole, were high on both Støre’s and Stoltenberg’s agenda. It was Støre who handled most of the successful negotiations between Norway and Russia to finally set a common border in the Barents Sea, and he had numerous meetings with all top Russian officials at the time including Putin, Dmitry Medvedev and Sergej Lavrov, who remains Putin’s foreign minister.
It has therefore particularly disturbed Støre to see Putin invade another neighbouring country, Ukraine, and launch a war five weeks ago. It has already forced more than 4 million Ukrainians to flee their homeland, killed thousands of Russian and Ukrainian troops and civilians, and utterly destroyed many Ukrainian towns and cities. Ukrainians have fought relentlessly to defend their country, though, and their president Volodymyr Zelensky made an historic address and appeal to the Norwegian Parliament on Wednesday.
Now Støre has made a direct appeal to Zelensky’s adversary Putin, stating that as a neighour to Russia as well, it’s important for Norway “to convey our views on the war directly to the Russian president. We have no illusions about how much we can achieve, but we must leave no stone unturned in the current situation. The suffering must cease. Our main message was that Russia must end the war.”
He also said he wasn’t sure whether Putin himself was fully aware of all the death and destruction in Ukraine in a war that Putin and his regime still insist on calling simply a “special military operation.” Store said he wanted to share with Putin how he and others view the war, in clear terms of civilian and military losses, “also on the Russian side.” Støre said Putin maintained “his Russian version” of the war, while “we are speaking clearly about the realities on the ground.”
Støre called Russia’s invasion of Ukraine “a brutal attack on a free country” that is “subjecting innocent people to inconceivable suffering.” He said that he “strongly urged” Putin to end the hostilities, withdraw Russian forces and ensure humanitarian access.”
He added that he “emphasized in particular that there must be unimpeded humanitarian access to the civilian population in Mariupol, and that a negotiated solution to the war must be sought.”
Støre wouldn’t rule out further conversations with Putin, who was portrayed earlier on Thursday by US and British intelligence agencies as being uninformed of how poorly his war is going by aides too frightened of him to tell him the truth. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Støre’s former boss when Stoltenberg was Norway’s prime minister, accused Putin and his underlings of lying about plans to withdraw troops or allow evacuations from Mariupol.
Støre said Putin spent a lot of time talking about the situation in Mariupol and thinks humanitarian access should be offered there. Støre said Putin also referred to ongoing talks in Istanbul between representatives of Russia and Ukraine, saying they deserved attention.
“We are deeply concerned about the scale of the devastation and suffering that the Russian invasion has caused,” Støre said. “We must do all we can to find a negotiated solution to this war.”