NEWS ANALYSIS: There’s been a lot of damage control going on in Norway and, presumably, at NATO since the Norwegian chief of staff for the Norwegian secretary general of NATO suggested what many think is a highly objectionable way to end Russia’s war on Ukraine. NATO boss Jens Stoltenberg made it clear just a few days later that “there is no room for compromise.”
“Sometimes things are black and white,” Stoltenberg told Harald Stangelle, the former editor of Norway’s largest newspaper, Aftenposten. Stanghelle is now leader of the program committee for Arendalsuka, an annual week of meetings and debate in the coastal city of Arendal, and he interviewed Stoltenberg as last week’s events came to a close.
Stoltenberg also stated that NATO “will continue to support Ukraine,” stressing that Russia has underestimated how long and to what degree democratic countries are willing to back Ukraine. Moreover, he said, NATO and many other nations have a responsibility to support Ukraine: “We must prove that the endurance of democracies is stronger than autocracies.”
Earlier in the week, Stoltenberg’s chief of staff, Stian Jenssen, had controversially said at both a public debate and in an interview with newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) that one possible solution for ending Russia’s war on Ukraine “could be that Ukraine give up territory and get NATO membership in return.” Jenssen has long been Stoltenberg’s right-hand man, so sparks quickly flew in both Moscow and Kyiv. “Totally unacceptable,” responded a spokesman for Ukraine’s foreign ministry, while former Russian President Dimitry Medvedev claimed Ukraine would need to give up Kyiv if they want to be members of NATO.
Norway’s own defense minister, Bjørn Arild Gram, responded by telling news bureau NTB that only Ukraine itself can evaluate what they may be willing to sacrifice “and how they’ll meet the Russian aggression.” Gram added that Norway “will support Ukraine in their defense battle as long as necessary. We hope, of course, for an end to the war as quickly as possible and a diplomatic solution, but that should be a result of Ukraine’s strength on the battlefield.” He also said that there’s nothing to indicate there will be peace talks any time soon.
Meanwhile, Jenssen did his best to clarify his statements, and downplay any suggestion of compromise on Ukraine’s part. Jenssen told Oslo-based newspaper VG that his statements were merely “part of a wider discussion on possible future scenarios in Ukraine, and I shouldn’t have uttered them in that way. That was wrong.”
Instead, Jenssen said, he meant to suggest that if, “and I stress if,” negotiations do emerge, it’s the “military situation on the field, territory and who controls what that will be central … and necessary for any decisive influence” on how the war may end.
“That’s exactly why it’s so decisively important that we support the Ukrainians with what they need,” Jenssen told VG. He said Ukraine must also obtain “credible security guarantees for the future … but we’re not there now. There are no signs the Russians are finished with their war.”
Just days later, Zelensky flew first to Sweden and then to the Netherlands and Denmark, and received promises of more military aid and equipment, not least long-sought F16 fighter jets. Norway’s Gram also confirmed that Norway will contribute to training programs for Ukrainian pilots and may donate some of its own F16s. It’s unclear whether the timing of the rush of more aid to Ukraine was coincidental or a quick reaction to the fuss in Arendal, but the result was clear: even more military support from NATO allies to fend off the Russians. Jenssen also won support from other defense experts, who claimed his initial remarks were taken out of context and could fuel conspiracy theories.
Jenssen’s boss, Stoltenberg, has long relied on Jenssen’s own expertise and firmly denied reports in international media that his top aide had tried to send up a “test balloon” of sorts to see what the reaction might be to the suggestion of a compromise.
“Our position, NATO’s position, is unchanged,” Stoltenberg said during the interview in Arendal. “It was confirmed at the summit in July. There is clear support to defend Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty with a military response. Only the Ukrainians can decide when any conditions for negotiations are in place.”