Nato picks Rutte, Putin critic and ‘Trump whisperer’, to replace Stoltenberg as next boss

Nato on Wednesday selected Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte as its next boss, as the war in Ukraine rages on its doorstep and uncertainty hangs over the United States’ future attitude to the transatlantic alliance.

Rutte’s appointment became a formality after his only rival for the post, Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, announced last week that he had quit the race, having failed to gain traction.

He will take over on October 1 from Jens Stoltenberg of Norway, who is stepping down after a decade in the post.

Rutte is a fierce critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin and a staunch ally of Ukraine who honed his skills as a political deal maker during nearly 14 years as Dutch prime minister.

Rutte, 57, has been one of the driving forces behind Europe’s military support for Ukraine since Russia’s 2022 invasion, and says defeat on the battlefield for Moscow is vital to secure peace in Europe.

His view is heavily influenced by the downing of an airliner over Ukraine in 2014, which the Netherlands blames on Russia, and in which 196 of the 298 victims were Dutch. Nato must be powerful to counter Moscow, and other European Union leaders must not be naive about Putin’s Russia, he says.

The Netherlands’ outgoing Prime Minister Mark Rutte (right) will replace Jens Stoltenberg (left) as the head of Nato. Photo: AFP

“He won’t stop at Ukraine if we don’t stop him now. This war is bigger than Ukraine itself. It’s about upholding the international rule of law,” Rutte told the United Nations in September 2022, seven months after Russia’s full-scale invasion.

Rutte first took office in 2010 and went on to become the longest-serving Dutch prime minister before announcing last year that he planned to leave national politics.

After the downing of flight MH17, he went from being primarily domestically focused to one of the EU’s main deal makers, playing an important role in European debates on immigration, debt and the response to Covid-19.

Under his leadership, the Netherlands has increased defence spending to more than the 2 per cent threshold of GDP required of Nato members, providing F-16 fighter jets, artillery, drones and ammunition to Kyiv and investing heavily in its own military.

He is a strong backer of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, whom he recalled meeting in Kyiv five years ago.

“It was clear even then: this is a man with a mission … I am convinced that Ukraine’s success largely depends on the mentality he conveyed from the very beginning,” Rutte said in April.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte (right) shakes hands with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on May 4, 2023. Photo: AFP

Kyiv on Wednesday congratulated Rutte on his appointment, as Russian forces claim steady advances in eastern Ukraine.

“Congratulations to Mark Rutte on being elected as the new Secretary General of Nato. Your leadership and dedication to democratic principles are crucial for our shared future,” the Ukrainian presidency’s chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, said on social media.

By contrast, even while warning of the threat posed by Putin, he has suggested the Russian leader is not as strong as he seems.

“Don’t mentally overestimate Putin. I’ve talked to the man a lot. He’s not a strong man, he’s not a strong guy,” Rutte said in a debate with parliament in April.

Rutte’s appointment will not “change anything” for Russia, which still sees the alliance as an enemy, the Kremlin said on Wednesday.

“It is unlikely that this choice can change anything in the general line of Nato,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. “At the moment, this is an alliance that is an enemy for us.”

Rutte cemented his bid to become Nato’s new chief last year while co-leading an international coalition that will deliver F-16 fighters to Ukraine and train Ukrainian pilots.

In his last months in office, he also signed a 10-year security pact with Ukraine, guaranteeing support from the Netherlands despite criticism by far-right leader and election-winner Geert Wilders.

Rutte has forged good relationships with various British and US leaders and is widely seen as having been one of the most successful in the EU at dealing with US President Donald Trump, who is standing for re-election.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte (right) has been labelled the “Trump Whisperer” for his ability to manage former US president Donald Trump. Photo: AFP

Rutte, who stands 1.93 metres (six feet four inches) tall, has many nicknames including “Teflon Mark” due to his resilience to scandals, and “The Trump Whisperer” for his ability to manage former US president Donald Trump.

He is widely credited with rescuing a 2018 Nato summit by talking Trump around on defence spending, and he showed typical Dutch directness by brazenly contradicting the president in the Oval Office.

In an exchange that later went viral, Trump claimed it would be “positive” whether the EU and the United States managed to clinch a trade deal.

The visiting Rutte scoffed out loud and interjected: “No! It’s not positive. We have to work something out.”

This could prove valuable experience, as Trump’s possible return has unnerved Nato leaders since the former president called into question US willingness to support other members of the defence alliance if they were attacked.

At the annual Munich Security Conference last year, Rutte said leaders should stop “moaning and whining about Trump”, and spend more on defence and ammunitions production, regardless of who wins the US election.



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