NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg says he went to sleep on the eve of February 24, 2022 knowing full well the carnage that would be unleashed within hours.

Months of warnings from the head of the Western military alliance had hardened into certainty that Russian President Vladimir Putin would launch his all-out attack on Ukraine that day.

"I went to bed. But it was a very short night because I knew that at some stage, within hours, someone was going to wake me up -- and that was exactly what happened," he told AFP in an interview a week ahead of the first anniversary of the invasion.  

"Around four o'clock, I was called by my chief of staff, and he just briefly told me that they have started, meaning the invasion has started. No surprise, because we knew."


While many around the world held out hope until the end that Moscow would not risk a full-scale assault, there was no doubt for the NATO secretary general that Putin was set to move.  

"It's possible to be shocked by the brutality of the war. But there's no way to be surprised because this was really something that was predicted months ahead of the invasion," he said.

- Full-fledged invasion -

 Now, a year into a war that has cost tens of thousands of lives and upended Europe's security, Stoltenberg warned that NATO must be ready for a new era of standoff with Russia that could last a long time.

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"President Putin wants a different Europe, wants a Europe where he can control neighbours, where he can decide what countries can do," Stoltenberg said.  

"We need to be prepared for the long haul, this may last for many, many, many, many years."

Moscow's war on a pro-Western neighbour has plunged Europe into its most dangerous crisis since World War II and pushed the NATO allies into the biggest overhaul of their defences since the Soviet Union collapsed.

The Norwegian head of the US-led alliance said he was wary of predicting how long the renewed face-off between Russia and the West would continue, because change can come suddenly. 


"We saw the fall of the Berlin Wall, or we saw 9/11," he said.

NATO would, he said, "always look into where there are opportunities to again come into the situation where there is room for a better relationship, but with the current behaviour of the Russian regime, the regime in Moscow, there's no way."

NATO members have not sent their own forces to Ukraine, and some Western officials fear that a direct military conflict could escalate into a nuclear war between the West and Russia. 

But since the Russian tanks rolled in, tens of thousands more NATO troops have been deployed to the alliance's eastern flank and a string of European allies have ramped up defence spending.  

NATO members, spearheaded by the United States, have also sent weaponry worth tens of billions of dollars to Ukraine to help it fight back against Russia. 

For many, it has given the alliance, founded in the wake of World War II to confront the Soviet Union, renewed focus after the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021.


But Stoltenberg insisted the invasion "hasn't really changed NATO that much, because we had to remember the war didn't start in February 2022. The war started in 2014, when Russia first illegally annexed Crimea.

"What we have seen since the full-fledged invasion last year, is the value of North America and Europe standing together, is the importance of what we have done over the last years to invest more in defence, increased readiness," he said. 

"It has proved the relevance and importance of NATO."

The former Norwegian prime minister pushed back against accusations NATO could have done more to prevent Russia's all-out invasion by arming Ukraine faster since Crimea or bringing it closer to the alliance's protective shield.

- 'Black and white, right and wrong' -

"This is a war of choice by President Putin, there is only one responsible and that is President Putin and the decision makers in Moscow," he said. 

"We can analyse, we can discuss, we can all consider different decisions, but that doesn't in any way remove the responsibility that President Putin has for this war."

He added: "Sometimes in history, it's black and white. Sometimes it's really right and wrong."


After a year of fighting that has seen both sides claim to have killed tens of thousands of their enemies, NATO is warning of a renewed Russian offensive as Moscow pours more soldiers towards the frontlines in a bid to make up for earlier failures. 

But Stoltenberg said members of the 30-nation alliance remain as committed as ever to making sure Ukraine ultimately prevailed. 

"We are there to ensure that Ukraine wins this war and to provide them with the weapons, the ammunition, the support they need," he said. 

"If President Putin wins in Ukraine, it will be a tragedy for Ukrainians. But it will be also dangerous for all of us, because then the message to him and other authoritarian leaders is that when they use military force they can achieve their goals."

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