NATO’s boss wants to free Ukraine to strike hard inside Russia

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. (File Photo: Reuters)
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. (File Photo: Reuters)


  • Jens Stoltenberg says the rules on using Western weapons should be eased

NATO SECRETARIES-GENERAL do not normally attack the policies of the alliance’s biggest and most important member country. But Jens Stoltenberg, whose ten-year stint in charge is coming to an end, has done just that. In an interview with The Economist on May 24th, he called on NATO allies supplying weapons to Ukraine to end their prohibition on using them to strike military targets in Russia. Mr Stoltenberg’s clear, if unnamed, target was the policy maintained by Joe Biden, America’s president, of controlling what Ukraine can and cannot attack with American-supplied systems.

“The time has come for allies to consider whether they should lift some of the restrictions they have put on the use of weapons they have donated to Ukraine," said Mr Stoltenberg. “Especially now when a lot of the fighting is going on in Kharkiv, close to the border, to deny Ukraine the possibility of using these weapons against legitimate military targets on Russian territory makes it very hard for them to defend themselves."

It has long been a source of frustration for Ukrainians that if they want to go after targets on Russian soil they must depend on home-produced drones, which have only limited utility. Their anger has been boiling over since May 10th, when the Russians began a big offensive across the border only 20 miles (32km) from Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-biggest city. It had been subject to pulverising aerial bombardment for several months before.

Mr Stoltenberg does not expect this action to lead to a Russian breakthrough. “They will continue to push and continue to gain some marginal ground, and they’re willing to pay a very high price for these marginal gains," he said. But he does warn that Ukraine is struggling. And he has harsh words for NATO’s European members: “European allies promised one million artillery shells," he said. “We haven’t seen anything close to that."

In an interview with AFP on May 17th Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, pleaded for permission to use donated weapons on targets inside Russia. He emphasised that their use would be defensive at a time when Russia was trying to exploit shortages in manpower and munitions, the latter the result of delayed support from America and those unfulfilled promises by Europe. Western governments, he said, wanted “Ukraine to win in a way that Russia does not lose".

Some Western analysts say America has sought to micromanage the way in which Ukraine fights ever since the war began. Time after time, the Americans have denied Ukraine weapons it urgently requested, only to relent many months later. The list included the HIMARS multiple rocket launch system, Abrams tanks, F-16 fighter jets and ATACMS , a tactical ballistic missile system.

The justification was always that America wanted to avoid prompting an escalatory response by Vladimir Putin, especially the use of tactical nuclear weapons. After France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, mused in May about deploying NATO forces in Ukraine, Mr Putin ordered nuclear drills to be held in Belarus. Yet apart from the sabre-rattling, nothing has come of Russia’s nuclear threats.

Mr Stoltenberg acknowledged the risk of escalation. The task, he said, is “to prevent this war becoming a full-fledged war between Russia and NATO in Europe." But he drew a distinction between the supply of weapons and training and military engagement. “We provide training, we provide weapons, ammunition to Ukraine, but we will not be directly involved from NATO territory in combat operations over or in Ukraine. So that’s a different thing." Mr Stoltenberg drew a similar line on the suggestion of stationing troops in Ukraine if its government requested them, an idea championed by Emmanuel Macron, France’s president. “That’s not the plan…We don’t have any intention to send NATO ground troops into Ukraine because our purpose…has been two-fold, to support Ukraine as we do, but also to ensure that we don’t escalate this into a full scale conflict."

There are now signs America may be moving towards allowing Ukraine more leeway in its targeting. After visiting Kyiv last week, Antony Blinken, America’s secretary of state, is reported to have made the case in Washington for allowing Ukraine to hit military bases and missile batteries a few miles inside Russia. These are being used to pummel Kharkiv and the troops defending it. A few days earlier David Cameron, Britain’s foreign secretary, had said Ukraine was free to use British-made Storm Shadow cruise missiles to strike targets in Russia. Lloyd Austin, America’s defence secretary, recently hinted that Russian aircraft launching glide bombs from Russian airspace might be legitimate targets for American missiles.

Yet Jake Sullivan, America’s national security adviser, has consistently urged caution. Mr Biden takes the same view. It will not have calmed Mr Biden’s concerns that in April Ukrainian drones took out a high-value early-warning radar station for tracking nuclear threats that was some 360 miles (580km) inside Russia.

Mr Stoltenberg seems well aware of the asymmetric advantage Russia derives from what amounts to a grant of sanctuary from American long-range weapons. This allows Russia to concentrate forces, safe in the knowledge that Ukraine cannot use its most effective weapons until they cross the border. They can also launch weapons such as Lancet drones from Russian soil in relative safety. “We need to remember what this is," Mr Stoltenberg said passionately. “This is a war of aggression by Russia against Ukraine. Ukraine has the right to defend themselves. And that includes striking targets on Russian territory."

However, Mr Stoltenberg distinguishes between allowing Ukraine to attack targets in Russia with donated systems, and any direct NATO engagement in the conflict. His predecessor as secretary-general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, called on May 14th for NATO countries in Eastern Europe to be allowed to use ground-based air defences to shoot down Russian missiles and drones aimed at Ukraine. Mr Stoltenberg rejected that idea: “We will not be party to the conflict," he said.

The interview made clear that the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO remains distant. Mr Stoltenberg’s plan is to ensure that when the politics have been resolved (that is, when the war is over and Ukraine’s borders are settled), the country is technically ready to become a member. He likens it (somewhat dubiously) to the recent process of accepting Finland and Sweden, who first met NATO’s operational standards and were soon accepted once they decided to apply (and once Turkey and Hungary dropped their objections). The key, said Mr Stoltenberg, is to ensure that Ukraine’s defence and security institutions meet NATO standards such that “when the conditions are right, they can become members very quickly".

Because Ukraine’s inventory increasingly consists of NATO-standard weapons and its forces are being trained in NATO methods, meeting technical requirements should be relatively easy. Mr Stoltenberg also wants NATO to have a much bigger role in co-ordinating security assistance and training, taking over much of what has been done up to now by the ad hoc “Ramstein Group". This is an alliance of 56 countries that came together to help Ukraine. He said it makes sense because “99% of the military support" is provided by NATO members. As it happens, it would also help protect the Ramstein process if Donald Trump were re-elected to the White House.

Even if the war goes well for Ukraine, it may not become a member of NATO for many years. The alliance works by unanimity. For Ukraine to satisfy every member’s political demands will be hard: the alliance’s other members would be obliged under its Article 5 to come to Ukraine’s defence if it were attacked. In the interview Mr Stoltenberg warned Russia that cyber-attacks could rise to the threshold of Article 5 if they were serious. “If there’s a magnitude…then we can trigger Article 5 and respond in cyber, but also in other domains to protect the NATO allies."

Mr Stoltenberg warns against expecting any significant long-term issues in Ukraine’s favour at NATO’s 75th anniversary summit in Washington later this summer. At his final summit, he may be a bit demob-happy, but he is as committed as ever to NATO’s central mission to preserve peace. “And the way NATO has preserved peace for 75 years," he said, “is not to fight the war, but actually to prevent the war by making absolutely clear that we are ready and able to defend every NATO ally." 

© 2024, The Economist Newspaper Ltd. All rights reserved. 

From The Economist, published under licence. The original content can be found on

Catch all the Business News, Market News, Breaking News Events and Latest News Updates on Live Mint. Download The Mint News App to get Daily Market Updates.