With Lithuania & Estonia, Rutte now backed by 28 of 32 NATO states to be next leader

THE HAGUE - Both Lithuania and Estonia indicated their support on Tuesday for caretaker Prime Minister Mark Rutte to become the next NATO secretary-general. Sources within NATO said that Rutte now has the backing of 28 of the 32 allied nations. 

Lithuania said it will support the Dutch leader's candidacy during Rutte's visit with President Gitanas Nauseda. The Lithuanian head of state said Rutte is "one of those politicians who recognised the Russian threat quite early" and radically adjusted his position accordingly. 

Lithuania is considered hawkish within NATO and the European Union when it comes to the fight against Russia. The Baltic country has called for the toughest sanctions against Russia, and said Ukraine should receive the maximum possible amount of military, humanitarian, financial and diplomatic support. Lithuania shares a border with both Russia and its ally, Belarus. 

Rutte emphasized during the press conference with Nauseda that NATO will defend his country's territorial borders. He also reiterated that the Netherlands will continue to support Ukraine for as long as necessary. Earlier in the day, Rutte visited Dutch soldiers currently located in Lithuania. 

Estonia also gave its support to Rutte. Prime Minister Kaja Kallas announced her position on X on Tuesday. She previously made critical comments about Rutte's candidacy, pointing out that the Netherlands has not met the NATO standard for defense expenditure. She also argued that a country from Eastern Europe deserves a chance to be represented at the head of the alliance. 

Kallas said she believes that a strong NATO should focus on Russia, increase defense spending and support Ukraine's membership. "I have discussed this in depth with Mark Rutte and he commits to these priorities. Estonia can back him for NATO's Secretary General," she said. 

Many NATO members have already signalled their support for Rutte, including the United States, France, Germany and the United Kingdom. The appointment must be unanimous, but Washington's vote has always been decisive in the past. 

The other official candidate is Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, who Rutte praised at a meeting of European leaders last month. Hungary has said it will not support Rutte. 

Prime Minister Kallas previously also seemed to want to make a bid to succeed Jens Stoltenberg as the leader of the Atlantic alliance, but she never officially put herself forward as a candidate.