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NATO allies ponder extending Stoltenberg’s tenure amid war in Ukraine

With war raging in Ukraine, some leaders of NATO-allied countries have expressed a desire to extend the contract of Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg for at least another year — until September 2023 — rather than engaging in a potentially distracting search for a successor, three NATO diplomats said.

Stoltenberg, a former Norwegian prime minister who has served as NATO’s top civilian official since October 2014, already has a new job lined up — as head of Norway’s Central Bank. Allied leaders were expected to announce a replacement by the end of June when they are due to gather for a summit in Madrid.

But Russia’s now month-long war against Ukraine, which President Vladimir Putin said he initiated partly because of Ukraine’s desire to join NATO, has altered the calculation, the diplomats said, and there is now a discussion at the alliance headquarters about whether Stoltenberg might be persuaded to stay another year.

Leaders are now expected to tackle the question when they gather in Brussels on Thursday for an extraordinary summit to discuss the war and NATO’s response. NATO has moved quickly to increase forces on its eastern flank and many allies are sending weapons and other assistance to Ukraine.

In 2019, Stoltenberg’s original contract was extended by two years, to September 30, 2022, as allies grappled with the tumult caused by then U.S. President Donald Trump, who entered office declaring NATO “obsolete” and at one point threatened to quit the alliance. Stoltenberg received huge credit for managing the relationship with Trump and transforming the combustible president into a NATO supporter.

Discussions about selecting a new secretary-general had only begun in earnest at NATO headquarters in early February, following the announcement that Stoltenberg had been appointed to the central bank post. Just three weeks later, Russia’s full-scale invasion and bombardment of Ukraine started.

The post of secretary-general is traditionally held by a European, while the top NATO military position, the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, has always been held by a U.S. military officer. With Stoltenberg’s extended contract nearing completion, there had been speculation that allies would aim to choose NATO’s first female secretary-general.

The return of war to Europe has put allied leaders under extraordinary pressure as they have confronted open threats from Putin. The Russian leader has warned of severe consequences for anyone who interferes in his invasion of Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Ukraine has implored NATO to impose a no-fly zone or take other action that would halt Russia’s attack. So far, allies have chosen to send weapons, money and provide other support but have ruled out any direct involvement in the fighting, including a no-fly zone. U.S. officials have argued such a move would require the U.S. air force to shoot down Russian planes, potentially broadening the conflict.

“All decisions on appointing or extending the mandate of the secretary-general are taken by NATO allies,” a NATO official said. “Secretary-General Stoltenberg is fully focused on tomorrow’s extraordinary NATO summit and addressing the biggest security crisis in a generation, caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”

Stoltenberg is scheduled to give a news conference Wednesday afternoon to preview the extraordinary leaders’ summit.

Ryan Heath contributed reporting.

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