NATO chief: "Russia has no right to establish a sphere of influence"
When asked Wednesday whether NATO was expanding toward Russia's "sphere of influence," Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg gave an impassioned response, pounding his podium and insisting that it's "not acceptable" for the Kremlin to control the actions of its sovereign neighbors.
Why it matters: Russia's attempts to destabilize Ukraine — through a massive military buildup on its border, weaponized disinformation and an alleged coup plot — were a main topic of discussion at NATO's two-day ministerial meeting in Latvia this week.
What they're saying: Asked whether Ukraine's desire to join NATO was an escalation against Moscow, Stoltenberg rejected the premise of the question and said large countries "putting limitations" on smaller, sovereign countries is "the kind of world we don't want to return to."
- "I myself come from a small country bordering Russia, and I'm very glad that our NATO allies have never respected that Russia has the kind of right to establish a sphere of influence in the north, trying to decide what Norway as a small independent country can do or not do. And that's exactly the same for Ukraine," Stoltenberg said.
- "So this idea that NATO support to a sovereign nation is a provocation is just wrong. It's to respect the sovereignty of the will of the Ukrainian people. So I think that tells more about Russia than about NATO."
Between the lines: NATO has not agreed to grant Ukraine membership, despite — or perhaps because of — the imminent threat it faces from Russia. The alliance views Ukraine as a partner and has provided training and other forms of military support, while encouraging the country to undertake anti-corruption reforms.
- Russian President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday he is seeking "concrete agreements" with NATO that the alliance will not spread east, including with weapons systems deployed in nonmember countries.
- "It's only Ukraine and 30 NATO allies that decide when Ukraine is ready to join NATO. Russia has no veto, Russia has no say, and Russia has no right to establish a sphere of influence to try to control their neighbors," Stoltenberg said at his press conference.
The big picture: Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned at his own press conference Wednesday that Putin is "putting in place the capacity" to invade Ukraine, but that his intentions are still unclear.
- Blinken and Stoltenberg said NATO ministers discussed a range of potential responses to a Russian invasion, including sanctions that would go further than the ones imposed after Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014.
- "We've made it clear to the Kremlin that we will respond resolutely, including with a range of high impact economic measures that we've refrained from using in the past," Blinken said.
What to watch: Blinken will meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Stockholm on Thursday.