While in Malta for an EU defence ministers’ meeting, Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg told the Times of Malta he blamed Russia’s annexation of Crimea for the escalation of Washington-Moscow tensions to the highest levels since the end of the Cold War, insisting, however, there was no imminent threat. As for Malta’s relationship with the alliance, he thinks it could still contribute in line with its neutrality policy.
How would you describe Malta’s relationship with Nato?
Malta is a Nato partner and we fully respect your neutrality. Nato has a long tradition in working with neutral countries like Sweden, Finland, Austria and Switzerland. We are working with Malta on issues like border security. All countries are facing the same security challenge, like instability in Africa, violence in Syria and Iraq, the terrorist threat and migrant and refugee crises. These are challenges we should address together.
Would you say Malta would be a big asset for Nato in the Mediterranean?
There is no reason to speculate on that issue because it is absolutely possible to develop the necessary cooperation between Nato and Malta without the island joining the alliance. We acknowledge that Malta is a neutral country and it is part of your Constitution. There is no reason to raise that issue as it will only create uncertainty and confusion. As we have seen with countries like Sweden and Austria we have extensive cooperation with them and they participate in exercises and contribute to Nato missions and operations.
Why is it still important to cooperate with Malta?
The importance of the cooperation between Malta, Nato and the EU is showcased off Malta’s coast with our Sea Guardian maritime operation. We have four ships, three patrol aircraft and some other assets which, in turn, are providing logistical support to EU operation Sophia, addressing the migrant and refugee crisis and broader security issues. Nato is also present in the Aegean Sea and has helped to implement the EU-Turkey migrant deal.
Looking at the wider picture, EU-Russia relations are at their lowest point since the end of the Cold War. Why?
Nobody thought about increasing Nato’s military presence in the Baltic region before Russia’s annexation of Crimea and they are still trying to destabilise eastern Ukraine. We have seen thousands killed so far. This was the first such incident since World War II and no other country in Europe has ever done such a thing. Especially for small countries, it is extremely important that international law and territorial sovereignty is respected. It is extremely important not to re-establish a system whereby the big powers have the right to intervene in neighbouring countries to have spheres of influence.
Is this the reason behind the stronger military presence in eastern Europe?
Yes. Nato increased its presence to ensure there is no doubt it is there to protect its allies. We are striving for a more constructive relationship with Russia. We don’t want a new Cold War or an arms race but we have to ensure that the sovereignty of nations is respected.
There is no reason to raise the possibility of Malta’s Nato membership issue as it will only create uncertainty and confusion
Should the EU be concerned because there are no signs Russia is softening its stance on Ukraine?
We do not see any imminent threat against any Nato ally.
Not even the Baltic states?
No. that’s because we have increased our presence there, so we are delivering credible deterrents to prevent a conflict. This is sending the message that an attack on one ally will trigger the response from the whole alliance. Nato has been the most successful alliance in history as it was able to prevent military conflicts and keep peace in Europe for a long time.
What are you expecting from this month’s Nato summit in Brussels?
It is a short but very important meeting in which we will be inaugurating the new headquarters. Most importantly, we will be hosting US President Donald Trump, who will be coming to Europe for the first time since taking office, the new French President and our newest member, Montenegro. This will be a strong expression of transatlantic unity - the strength of the alliance binding North America and Europe together.
Will the summit serve to heal the rift caused by President Trump’s remarks of an “obsolete” alliance, which he only retracted recently in a White House meeting?
I had a very good meeting with Mr Trump and discussed a wide range of issues. He reiterated his very strong support to Nato, saying it was important to guarantee stability, prosperity in Europe and North America. I welcome his very strong commitment to Nato. We discussed the agenda for the upcoming summit where we will look into burden sharing [the contribution to the alliance by each member] but also how to step up the fight against terrorism and to stabilise our neighbourhood to have more security.
President Trump, however, has not back-tracked from his remark that not all Nato members are giving their fair share in terms of spending, most notably Germany. How will you be addressing this issue?
I welcome the fact that President Trump is focusing on this matter. It is important to remember that increased defence spending in Europe is not something we should do to please the US. It is something we should do because European Nato allies have promised to do so because it is in their own security interest to invest more in defence in a world that has become regrettably more dangerous. This was what the European allies have started to do. In 2016, we saw the first increase in defence spending in many years. Burden sharing is about spending and also about contributions to Nato activities, operations in Kosovo, Afghanistan and operation Sea Guardian.
Nato’s focus has also shifted to counter-terrorism. In what manner are you trying to safeguard citizens’ security?
The terrorist threat requires a very comprehensive and long-term response with different means, many of which are non-military, like the police, border control, civil intelligence and the political and ideological fight against extremism. Then, we also need military response to address the root causes. That is why we are in Afghanistan, where they organised the 9/11 attacks, preventing this country from becoming a safe haven for terrorists. That’s also the reason why we are fighting Daesh or Isis in Syria and Iraq. Nato provides support and we need military means to defeat Daesh.
Nato has also improved its intelligence sharing.
Our presence in the Balkans is also linked to our fight against terrorism. One important dimension is to address the threat stemming from foreign fighters and one of the reasons we are working in countries like Bosnia Herzegovina and Kosovo is to address foreign fighters returning from Syria.
Does the political situation in Turkey worry you, given that the country is a strategic member of the alliance?
Turkey is a key ally and plays an important role in Nato because it borders Syria and Iraq and Russia. It is important in addressing terrorist threats, Russia and dealing with the migrant and refugee crisis that we managed to succeed in stemming the flow across the Aegean. No other European ally has suffered as many terrorist attacks as Turkey as well as a failed coup attempt last July.
It has the right to defend itself and prosecute those responsible in accordance with the rule of law, which is one of the alliance’s core values. This is something I have stated in Ankara and is part of Nato’s message.
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