Romania president quits NATO chief race, Rutte in clear

Romanian President Klaus Iohannis has withdrawn from the race to lead NATO, clearing the way for Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte to become the next secretary-general of the transatlantic military alliance.

All other NATO members had already backed Rutte, a staunch ally of Ukraine and outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, to take over from Jens Stoltenberg, who is stepping down this year after a decade in charge.

With the war in Ukraine on NATO's doorstep and European nations concerned about the possible return of NATO-critical Donald Trump to the White House, alliance members concluded the highly experienced Rutte was the best person for the post.

Klaus Iohannis
Romanian President Klaus Iohannis has withdrawn his candidacy to become the head of NATO. (AP PHOTO)

As it announced Iohannis' decision, Romania's supreme defence council said it would donate one of the country's two operational Patriot systems to Ukraine, responding to pleas from Kyiv to its allies for more air defence assistance.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Romania's decision "will bolster our air shield and help us better protect our people and critical infrastructure from Russian air terror".

The supreme council, which is chaired by Iohannis, said the president had informed NATO last week of his decision to withdraw and Romania would now support Rutte's candidacy.

With all 32 NATO members now backing the Dutchman, diplomats said they expected the alliance's governing North Atlantic Council to formally select him for the post in the coming days.

Rutte will face the challenge of sustaining allies' support for Ukraine's fight against Russia's invasion, while guarding against any escalation that could draw NATO directly into a war with Russia.

Under Rutte, the Netherlands has in recent years ramped up defence spending above NATO's target of 2 per cent of GDP.

It is providing F-16 fighter jets, artillery, drones and ammunition to Ukraine as well as investing heavily in its own military.

Norwegian ex-premier Stoltenberg's term at the helm of NATO will end on October 1.

He took office in 2014, just a few months after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine.