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War may drag on, but Ukraine has right to its territory, NATO chief says

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the White House on June 2. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
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Ukraine may face a long war of attrition with Russia, and Kyiv’s allies need to find a way to make their support “sustainable” over the long term, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Thursday.

The NATO leader said in an interview with The Washington Post that the alliance’s goal should be to support Ukraine’s effort to achieve a battlefield outcome that would ultimately lead to a negotiated end to the conflict. But he said the fighting could easily drag into an “unresolved conflict,” with neither side willing to make the concessions necessary for any deal.

“We need to be prepared that this may actually drag on for a long time,” he said.

But Stoltenberg pushed back on the idea that NATO’s support might diminish Kyiv’s appetite for a diplomatic resolution. “Concern that in a way we’re supporting them too much is absolutely wrong,” he said.

Stoltenberg also rejected the suggestion that Ukraine should avoid declaring ambitious war aims, such as the full expulsion of Russian forces from the Donbas region and Crimea, which Moscow annexed in 2014.

“They have the right to say that they are fighting for the whole of Ukraine,” he said.

Many U.S. officials privately doubt that Ukraine will be able to fully expel Russian forces in the near or medium term and say such aims would doom Kyiv to an endless war.

The NATO chief acknowledged that the price tag of Western support for Ukraine is steadily rising, but he said ending the support would also be costly because it would embolden Russia.

“Action has a price; inaction has a high price,” Stoltenberg said. “Because then we are really risking that the lesson Russia learns is that they reach their goals by using military force, and then they will be tempted to do it again and again and again. And that would be much more expensive.”

How Finland and Sweden would alter NATO’s strategic map

The NATO leader was in Washington this week to meet with President Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken ahead of an alliance summit in Madrid at the end of the month. With weeks to go before the conclave, there are cracks opening among the 30 member nations about how much to bolster the allied troop presence in Eastern Europe and what kind of military support to give Ukraine.

And NATO member Turkey is blocking the efforts of Sweden and Finland to join the alliance, saying it has concerns with the asylum they have granted to members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which the United States and Turkey consider a terrorist group.

Stoltenberg said he was optimistic about smoothing out disagreements ahead of the summit, noting that NATO nations were already giving Ukraine “unprecedented” military aid and that the alliance itself had deployed thousands of troops to its border nations since the conflict began in February.

And he said he believed he could help foster an agreement between Turkey and the two aspiring members, who abandoned long-standing policies of nonalignment after the conflict started.

“For Turkey, these are serious security concerns,” he said.