It's up to Russia to prevent war in Ukraine, NATO chief says

NATO's secretary general says that while there's an urgent need for diplomacy to resolve the crisis in eastern Europe, it's up to Russia — not Ukraine — to show flexibility.

'The aggressor is Russia': NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg

Russian soldiers take part in drills at the Kadamovskiy firing range, in the Rostov region in southern Russia, on Thursday. Russia has rejected Western complaints about its troop buildup near Ukraine, saying it deploys them wherever it deems necessary on its own territory. (The Associated Press)

NATO's secretary general says that while there's an urgent need for diplomacy to resolve the crisis in eastern Europe, it's up to Russia — not Ukraine — to show flexibility.

In an interview with CBC News airing Sunday, Jens Stoltenberg was asked whether the government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky could — or should — be doing more under the existing Minsk agreements to pull Europe back from the brink of a new war.

Moscow has precipitated the current crisis, he said.

"The aggressor is Russia," Stoltenberg told CBC's chief political correspondent, Rosemary Barton. "To expect that the victim of aggression should de-escalate is to really put the whole thing in a bit of [a] strange, upside-down way."

Stoltenberg said that while it's up to Russia "to de-escalate," NATO is still willing to sit down again and listen to Moscow's concerns.

WATCH: NATO head discusses Russia-Ukraine tensions: 

It's up to Russia to prevent war in Ukraine, NATO chief says

2 years ago
Duration 8:40
Featured VideoIn an interview with CBC chief political correspondent Rosemary Barton, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that while there's an urgent need for diplomacy to resolve the crisis in eastern Europe, it's up to Russia, not Ukraine, to show flexibility.

A spokesperson for the Kremlin described as "unsuccessful" the round of security negotiations that took place this past week involving the United States, NATO and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). 

Russia's ambassador to the OSCE, Alexander Lukashevich, warned of possible "catastrophic consequences" if the two sides can't agree on Russia's security red lines. He said that Moscow had not given up on diplomacy even though no new talks are scheduled.

Stoltenberg, a former prime minister of Norway who negotiated border disputes with the Russians in the Far North, said he has faith a deal with Moscow is possible.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks to the media in front of a Canadian LAV-6 armoured vehicle outside Riga, Latvia. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

"I think the most important thing I learned was that there's no contradiction between ... defence, strength and dialogue. As long as we are strong, as long as we are united, we can engage in dialogue and discuss many issues with Russia," he said. "Dialogue, talks, negotiation is not a sign of weakness, it's a sign of strength."

With the help of the U.S., France and Germany, two peace accords have been brokered to end the fighting in eastern Ukraine. They are known as the Minsk agreements, and they have created a climate of political stalemate.

'Russia's strategy has been to re-escalate' 

Dominique Arel, a University of Ottawa professor and the school's chair of Ukrainian studies, said the government in Kyiv has no room politically to give in to a Russian demand written into the Minsk agreements: political autonomy for the breakaway eastern Donbas region, where Russian proxy forces have been fighting Ukrainian soldiers since 2014.

An attempt to change Ukraine's constitution under former president Petro Poroshenko ended in street violence, while suggestions of accommodation by the current Zelensky administration have been described as "treason," Arel said.

"Ukraine is unable to move, politically," he said. "Since there has been no movement, Russia's strategy has been to re-escalate."

It will be very difficult to find a pathway to peace without going through the Donbas, and Arel said he wonders whether it's too late. Russia has "upped the demands so much that it is no longer about the Minsk accord," he said.

The crisis is now about "the legitimacy of any kind of NATO presence east of Berlin," and Moscow is essentially "challenging the post-Cold War order," he added.

Russia could be planning 'false flags,' White House says

The White House said Friday that U.S. intelligence reports that Russia has pre-positioned teams in occupied areas of eastern Ukraine to launch "false flag" operations to create a pretext for war. 

Stoltenberg insisted that a further invasion of Ukrainian territory would be "a big strategic mistake by Russia," with a high cost in blood.

"The Ukrainian armed forces are much more well trained, well equipped, well prepared now than they were in 2014, when Russia went in the first time," he said. "And then, of course, we will always also be ready to do what it takes to protect and defend all NATO allies."

For NATO, defending allies in eastern Europe could mean bolstering the defences of countries like Romania, Bulgaria and Poland. As part of its response to Moscow's invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014, the western military alliance placed four battle groups of soldiers and artillery in the three Baltic states and eastern Poland.

A serviceman takes his position in a trench at the line of separation near Yasne village, about 34 kilometres southwest of Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine, on Friday. (Alexei Alexandrov/The Associated Press)

In December, U.S. Gen. Tod Wolters — NATO's supreme allied commander for Europe — was reportedly considering extending Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) battalion deployments into Bulgaria and Romania.

"That is one of the things we will have to look at" if the Russians invade Ukraine, Gen. Rob Bauer, the head of NATO's Military Council, said Thursday following a meeting of all of the alliance's chiefs of defence staff.

"I know there are a number of nations who are interested in hosting those forces. As far as I know, that has not been made official, yet. I cannot say there is a decision, but in general we are looking at the possibilities."

Bauer added that NATO commanders are "force sensing" among member nations to find out which countries would be willing to contribute to those additional battle groups should they be needed.

On Friday, dozens of Ukrainian government websites were hit by a cyberattack that warned Ukrainians to "be afraid and wait for the worst" and alleging that their personal information had been hacked.

Canada has 200 troops on a military training mission in Ukraine. Their task force commander, Lt.-Col. Luc-Frederic Gilbert, told CBC News the contingent had not been targeted by a cyberattack or a Russian disinformation campaign so far.

He said he has every confidence in Ukrainian troops.

"What I can tell you is that the soldiers we are training are highly motivated and highly skilled, and there is a clear willingness in them to defend their country," Gilbert said.

On Saturday, Global Affairs Canada announced it was advising Canadians to "avoid non-essential travel to Ukraine due to ongoing Russian aggression and military buildup in and around the country."


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.