Jens Stoltenberg, NATO Secretary-General, visited Zagreb for a meeting of EU defence ministers and spoke with the Croatian leadership, Prime Minister Andrei Plenkovic and President Zoran Milanovic. Then, he spoke with EURACTIV Croatia.

Mister Stoltenberg, do you think it would be more convenient for you to continue working as a taxi driver? (in one election campaign Stoltenberg was driving a taxi in Oslo and talking to people).

I think it is good for me and the people of Oslo that I am not the taxi driver. I think I am a better prime minister than a taxi driver.

What were the topics of your talks with our President and Prime Minister?

It was the current challenges we all face and not least related to the crisis in Syria and the consequences for all of us. Not least caused by the increase of the number of refugees and migrants. We have seen increased violence in Syria not least in the Idlib province where Russia and the Assad regime are responsible for an offensive which has forced hundreds of thousands of people to leave their homes. We have seen indiscriminate bombings, violation of the international law. And we call on Russia and Syria and Assad regime to stop the offensive, to respect the international law and to engage in UN efforts to find a political solution for the conflict. There is no easy way forward but the only solution to the conflict in Syria is a politically negotiated solution. And all the parties involved have to support those UN efforts.

And what the role Turkey plays?

Turkey has some legitimate security concerns and no other NATO ally has suffered such mortal attacks as Turkey. No other ally has host more refugees than Turkey - close to four million refugees.

But on the other side, Lebanon has 6 million inhabitants and hosts one million refugees?

That’s right. There are some other countries in the region like Lebanon that also host many refugees but compared to European countries there is no doubt that there is no other NATO ally that host more refugees than Turkey. We also see a crisis on the border between Greece and Turkey and this reminds us of that migrant and refugee crisis is a common challenge and we need a common answer to it. Therefore I welcome any efforts to find a common approach by the EU and Turkey to address this challenge. I am in regular contact with the political leadership in Turkey, in Greece and also in the EU and spoke to them over the last days. NATO plays a role because we have a naval deployment in the Aegean Sea and we are helping to implement the agreement between Turkey and the EU to curb the illegal flow of migrants.

What was Turkey telling allies on the exceptional meeting last Monday?

Turkey then briefed on the very serious escalation in Idlib where several Turkish troops have been killed in airstrikes and this highlights how difficult and challenging the whole situation is. They asked for consultations on Article 4 of the Treaty. We condemned the attacks in Idlib province and indiscriminate bombings.

Macron said that NATO is brain dead because Turkey started offensive without even notifying its allies. Is Turkey a reliable partner having in mind also buying a Russian missile system S-400?

Turkey is an important NATO ally for many reasons. Not least because they have been key in the fight against ISIS. We have to remember that not so many months ago ISIS controls the territory as big as the United Kingdom. Eight million people in Iraq and Syria. Now all this territory is liberated and the progress we made against ISIS is very much because we were able to use the infrastructure based in Turkey. We have discussed the situation in Syria with Turkey many times, they briefed allies several times and we do not always agree. That’s correct. But that reflects the fact that we are an alliance of 29. Different nations with different history with different geography different political parties in power but at least NATO provides a platform for allies to sit together also when they have different views and address them and try to find a common way forward. That is exactly what we do in NATO when we face differences.

How can NATO help in the migrant crisis in Idlib or the one on the Greece Turkey border?

There is no military solution to the crisis on the border. But, of course, NATO plays a role. We help to implement the EU-Turkey agreement. We share information with Turkish and Greek coast guard, with Frontex and we bring together Greek and Turkish officers in this NATO deployment. We also play a role in addressing the root causes. Because what we see on the border is a consequence of the conflict and violence in the wider region. So NATO’s efforts to help to stabilize for instance Iraq with our training mission, NATO’s effort to fight against ISIS and NATO’s presence in Afghanistan where we work for peaceful, negotiated solution to our training mission in that country. All these are about addressing the root causes of the migrant and refugee crisis. NATO has a role to play but there are many institutions, EU, UN, individual countries but the migrant crisis is a complex and a big challenge one and it can not be addressed by one nation or institution alone. It is a common challenge and we have to work together to find common responses.

You mentioned Afghanistan. Do You think the agreement between the US and the Taliban as a viable one?

I hope so. And I will do whatever I can to make it viable but this is uncertain and difficult environment that we work in. The Agreement signed on Saturday is the first step but we still have a very long way to go. And that way will be hard and difficult. We have to be prepared for disappointments. The agreement is important because the Taliban has for the first time promised to brake all ties with terrorist organizations and do whatever they can to prevent Afghanistan to become a safe haven for terrorists. Let remember the Taliban was in government when al-Qa’ida operated freely in Afghanistan, organizing, planning, conducting terrorist attacks against our countries including 9/11 in the US. Taliban promised to reduce violence and for the first time, they promised to sit down for negotiations with the Afghan government. And in the long run, it can be a viable, peaceful solution for the conflict in Afghanistan. The Afghan lead the Afghan-owned peace process. We have plans in place to gradually reduce our presence but that will be conditions-based. We can not leave Afghanistan to early. If we do that, we risk that the Taliban will be back controlling the country and the caliphate that ISIS lost can be reestablished here and Afghanistan can again become a launching pad for attacks against us. Let remember that we are in Afghanistan to protect ourselves. We welcome the participation of Croatia in this mission that is protecting us. We came to Afghanistan together and we are going to leave together when the time is right.

Russia. Is it a real threat to Europe or is it just blown up story?

We don’t see any imminent threat against any NATO ally country. But what we see is a more assertive Russia which has used material force against its neighbours Georgia and Ukraine. Which is investing heavily in new, modern capabilities including nuclear ones and which has deployed intermediate-range nuclear-capable missiles in Europe violating INF Treaty. This is the most important arms control deal we have. And, which is present close to our borders not only in Russia but also in Syria and Lybia and all this made it necessary for NATO in a defensive way to invest more in our security and to deploy troops to the east part of the Alliance. But NATO does it in a defensive, we do not want a new Cold War, we do not want any arms race. We strive for a better relationship with Russia but to make that better relationship works it is needed for Russia to understand that it can not intimidate us, nor threaten us. We have to sit down and have a constructive dialogue with Russia to improve our relationships with our biggest neighbour. And it will be in mutual interest.

First published by Jutarnji List and