NATO chief warns of 'more assertive Russia' in US Congress speech

In the first address to Congress by a NATO head, Jens Stoltenberg acknowledges serious divisions within the alliance.

    NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, accompanied by Vice President Mike Pence, left, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, right, addresses a Joint Meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington [Patrick Semansky/AP Photo]
    NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, accompanied by Vice President Mike Pence, left, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, right, addresses a Joint Meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington [Patrick Semansky/AP Photo]

    The head of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) warned on Wednesday of the threat posed by "a more assertive Russia", including a massive military buildup, threats to sovereign states, the use of nerve agents and cyberattacks.

    "We must overcome our differences now because we will need our alliance even more in the future. We face unprecedented challenges - challenges no one nation can face alone," NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said during a speech to a joint meeting of the US Congress. 

    Saying "time is running out", Stoltenberg also called on Russia to return to compliance with the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, from which US President Donald Trump plans to withdraw the US this summer.

    "NATO has no intention of deploying land-based nuclear missiles in Europe," Stoltenberg said. "But NATO will always take the necessary steps to provide credible and effective deterrence."

    Stoltenberg used his speech to give an impassioned defence of the 70-year-old Western alliance, a partnership he called "the most successful alliance in history", which has often been derided by Trump since he took office in 2017.

    Members of Congress, who greeted Stoltenberg with repeated cheers and standing ovations, said they viewed his address to the joint meeting of the House of Representatives and Senate as a chance to reaffirm the US commitment to the NATO alliance.

    Message to Trump

    Stoltenberg was the first leader of an international organisation and the first Norwegian to be accorded the rare honour of such an address. 

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    "NATO has been good for Europe, but NATO has also been good for the United States," Stoltenberg said. The invitation to Stoltenberg to speak as the alliance celebrates its 70th anniversary in Washington was widely seen as a way to send a message to Trump about strong bipartisan support for NATO.

    "The strength of a nation is not only measured by the size of its economy or the number of its soldiers, but also by the number of its friends," Stoltenberg added. "And through NATO, the United States has more friends and allies than any other power. This has made the United States stronger, safer and more secure."

    Trump has ruffled feathers among European allies by repeatedly saying NATO nations need to pay more for their militaries and ease the burden on the US.

    Earlier this year, before inviting Stoltenberg to Congress, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi led a delegation of her fellow Democrats to Brussels, where they sought to reassure European allies that differences over Trump's policies were mere "family squabbles" and that transatlantic ties remained strong.

    Members of Congress have also introduced legislation expressing support for NATO or seeking to keep any president from withdrawing from the alliance without legislators' approval.

    Spending pressure

    Stoltenberg met Trump on Tuesday. The US president said his pressure on NATO nations to pay more for their defence is leading to tens of billions of dollars more in contributions, but the allies may need to boost their budgets even more. 

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    Stoltenberg said NATO member countries are adding billions to their defence spending - $41bn in the last two years. He expects that figure to rise to $100bn next year.

    "This is making NATO stronger," he said. "This is good for Europe, and it is good for America."

    Trump's NATO criticisms have upset a delicate balance within an alliance that has long counted on Washington to be its leader.

    Trump's criticisms are not NATO's only source of friction. The alliance also is at odds with long-time member Turkey over its planned purchase of a Russian air defence system that is not compatible with the allied air defences.

    The Trump administration is threatening to stop delivery to Turkey of the newest US fighter jet, the F-35, if Ankara goes through with its plan to buy Russia's S-400 system instead of the American Patriot system.

    On Thursday, Stoltenberg will lead a meeting of NATO foreign ministers, hosted by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, to mark 70 years since the alliance's founding charter, the North Atlantic Treaty.

    The alliance has grown from its original 12 members to 29, with North Macedonia about to become the 30th member country.

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    SOURCE: News agencies