New NATO head's tough task: dealing with a resurgent Russia

Former Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg has experience in political dealings with the Kremlin – something that NATO now needs in abundance.

Fredrik Varfjell/NTB Scanpix/AP
Former Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg arrives to address the media in Oslo on Friday. NATO announced on Friday that Mr. Stoltenberg will become chief of the NATO alliance when current NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen steps down in the autumn of 2014.

It will be some six months before former Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg takes on his new position as head of NATO.

But the primary task that awaits him appears quite clear already: To navigate the military alliance through its dealings with a newly assertive Russia. Just weeks ago, Russia controversially annexed Crimea from the Ukraine. More recently, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe, Philip Breedlove, warned about the large number of Russian forces assembled on Ukraine’s eastern border. And today, NATO foreign ministers are meeting to plan further support for the group's eastern European members, who are worried about the possibility of further Russian expansionism.

Indeed, the immediacy of Europe's crisis – and by extension, NATO's crisis – with Russia seems to be precisely why NATO's governing council decided to appoint Mr. Stoltenberg to replace Anders Fogh Rasmussen as secretary general this October. Stoltenberg has warmed up to Russia during his near 10 years as prime minister of Norway, working with Moscow to resolve competing maritime and natural resource claims. And the council hopes he can bring use that relationship to NATO's benefit.

In his acceptance speech in Oslo at Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s office on Friday, Stoltenberg highlighted how the recent hostilities reinforced the importance of the NATO alliance. He underscored the need for both dialogue as well as military strength in resolving the tense situation in the Ukraine and Norway’s good relations with Russia.

“It has been the strength within NATO, the collective security of Norway, that has enabled Norway to have the cooperation with Russia in the High North, related to energy, to fish, and also the agreement we reached on the delimitation line,” Stoltenberg told the Monitor. “So for me, there is no contradiction between military strength and a firm position and the idea of having political dialogue, engaging other countries.”

Under Stoltenberg’s government, Norway was able to resolve a four-decade-long conflict over how to divide the Barents Sea. In 2011, the two countries ratified the treaty on maritime delimitation and cooperation in the Barents Sea and Arctic Ocean that also called for oil and gas cooperation on trans-boundary deposits in that area. The two large petroleum producers both act as major gas suppliers to Europe.

Kate Hansen Bundt, secretary general of the Norwegian Atlantic Committee, believes the seasoned Norwegian politician was picked because of Norway’s ability to work with Russia both during the Cold War and in resolving the Barents Sea delineation line, according to Norwegian news agency NTB. Polish Foreign Minister Radoslav Sikorski, who was also rumored to be in the running, would be have been seen as potentially too “Russian skeptic.”

“In this situation which has arisen in Ukraine, NATO really needs a new strategy over Russia,” Ms. Bundt told NTB. “One has to relate to them and be able to negotiate with them.”

Nordic and Atlantic

On top of his long political career as Labor party leader and his current post as UN special envoy on climate change, Stoltenberg has gained international recognition for his ability to unite the nation after the 2011 terrorist attacks by Anders Behring Breivik. The militant nationalist killed 77 in the country’s worst peacetime tragedy: a bomb attack on government buildings followed by a shooting spree at a Labor party youth summer camp.

“Stoltenberg's dignified and measured response to the terror attacks in Norway in 2011 – he pledged at the memorial service to combat the atrocity with 'more democracy, more openness, and more humanity' – helped to bring comfort to the country at a difficult time,” says Ian Davis, director at think tank NATO Watch. “If he brings a similar degree of insight and understanding to his new role, he may well turn out to be a high-quality choice for NATO, European security and transatlantic cooperation.”

Still, Stoltenberg’s candidacy was far from a given. Critics pointed to his past as leader of the Labor party youth organization, AUF, in the 1980s, when the group was opposed to Norway joining the alliance. He was regarded by many – including Prime Minister Solberg – as a long shot for the post given that he would follow Mr. Rasmussen, a fellow Scandinavian. He said his candidature became real in January when the US reached out to the Norwegian defense department.

Despite the cultural similarities, he could usher a “more Nordic dimension, including the Arctic, into the attention of the alliance” than Rasmussen, says Karsten Friis, senior adviser and head of the research group on security and defense at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs.

“Although the current secretary general also is Nordic, his orientation has always been Atlantic – for Stoltenberg it will be both” Nordic and Atlantic, says Mr. Friis. “Having said that, the most immediate challenges for NATO remains to be in the south in Libya and Mali, southeast in Syria and Iran and east in Ukraine and Russia.”

Labor shakeup

At home, the NATO appointment triggers a political reshuffle in the Labor party leadership. Stoltenberg announced on Friday that he would step down, but left open who would take over as Labor leader and prime minister candidate.

Labor, the country’s largest party, has the longest running record sitting in government during Norway's postwar period, but lost the election last autumn to a Conservative-Progress party coalition. The widely popular Stoltenberg has been the party’s strongest chance for regaining power. Jonas Gahr Store, a former foreign minister, is regarded as themost likely to take over as party leader and prime minister candidate.

Norwegian political commentators say the changeover comes at a timely point for Labor ahead of the 2017 elections by giving voters time to adapt to the new leadership.

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