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Talks between Russia and NATO don't seem to have defused tensions on Ukrainian border

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Lots of talk and not so much progress to report - that about sums up where things stand after talks in Brussels today. NATO and Russia seem no closer to defusing a dangerous situation on the Ukrainian border. Upwards of 100,000 Russian troops along with tanks and artillery are lined up to the north, east and southeast of Ukraine. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg urged Russia, back off.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JENS STOLTENBERG: The easiest and the fastest way to get out of this crisis is for Russia to deescalate. The reasons why we are here, the reason why we have the crisis now is that we have seen a significant military buildup in and around Ukraine.

KELLY: Well, for more, I want to bring in NPR London correspondent Frank Langfitt and Moscow correspondent Charles Maynes.

Welcome to you both.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hey there.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Great to be here, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Charles, you start. What is the fundamental dispute?

MAYNES: Yeah. You know, Russia is effectively threatening to invade Ukraine unless NATO guarantees the country, which was once part of the Soviet Union, of course, doesn't join the military alliance. Now, Moscow has other demands, specifically that NATO roll back deployments to where they were in the late 1990s. This is before a host of countries in Eastern and Central Europe joined. And behind all this lies this really deeply held Russian sense of grievance over the end of the Cold War and a feeling that NATO and the U.S. took advantage of Russian weakness at the time. They ignored - later ignored Western promises not to move eastward, and so this is really about renegotiating the past. You know, today, Russia's top negotiator, Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko, said Russia still viewed NATO as it did during the Cold War, as an alliance designed to, quote, "contain Russia" while failing once again to take into account Russia's views.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALEXANDER GRUSHKO: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: So here, Grushko says that NATO understands the principle of national security selectively. In the eyes of NATO, it only exists for members of the alliance, but it doesn't concern others.

KELLY: Frank, you cover NATO. Their response to all this is what?

LANGFITT: I think what NATO is saying is, you can't tell us what to do. Ukraine is a free country. We should also note that Ukraine wants to join NATO, but it's got a long way to go to meeting the requirements. NATO also says Russia has created this crisis by putting troops on the border in the first place and points out Ukraine has a tiny military by comparison. This is how Jens Stoltenberg put it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STOLTENBERG: Ukraine has the right to self-defense. Ukraine is not a threat to Russia. Russia has the biggest land power in Europe. Russia has used military force against Ukraine before, so the whole idea that in a way Ukraine threatens Russia is absolutely to put the whole thing upside down.

LANGFITT: And, Mary Louise, what he's referring to is Russia's invasion of Crimea back in 2014 and its backing of separatists in Eastern Ukraine. Now, Stoltenberg also says, you know, Russia's effectively bullying a much smaller nation to build a sphere of influence, which he said kind of reminds him of the Cold War. Now, of course, Russia points out NATO is a sphere of influence and one that's expanded by 14 countries since the end of the 1990s.

KELLY: Frank, you said NATO's position boils down to, you can't tell us what to do, which prompts the question, what can they do about it? I mean, what are NATO's options if Russian tanks actually start rolling across that border?

LANGFITT: Yeah, the answer is not a lot. And here's why. As we were saying earlier, Ukraine isn't a member of NATO, so NATO has no treaty commitment to defend it. Instead, NATO countries - that's including, of course, the U.S. It's the biggest member by far. They're threatening more sanctions against Russia if it invades. Deputy U.S. Secretary of State Wendy Sherman - she said, for instance, Europe could cancel new Russian pipeline project to Germany - it's called Nord Stream 2, very important Kremlin investment for their export strategy in terms of energy. But I was also talking to Judy Dempsey. She edits a blog called Strategic Europe. It's with the think tank Carnegie Europe. And she says it's going to take a lot more than that.

JUDY DEMPSEY: Diplomacy is not enough if it's not matched up with very forceful deeds, and this should be spelt out to Russia. Russia's intimidating an independent, sovereign country. It's astonishing that he's actually getting away with this, and he did get away with it in Eastern Ukraine. Sanctions haven't really changed him.

KELLY: Charles, weigh in on motive here to the extent that we know. Why is this in Vladimir Putin's possible interests to invade Ukraine? Why is it in his interest to threaten to invade Ukraine?

MAYNES: Well, his interest here is in trying to use a credible threat of force to gain concessions about all sorts of things, including no membership, as we noted, for Ukraine into NATO but also trying to, again, kind of renegotiate the end of the Cold War. The problem here is that with such a large force on the border and making his demands so public, Putin would probably need sizable concessions from NATO to be able to declare victory and pull back in any way.

KELLY: I want to talk about exit ramps. Frank, any obvious compromises, any ways out of this standoff?

LANGFITT: At the moment, I'd say no. You know, NATO has offered to talk about arms control, about which it's very concerned, limiting missile deployments in Europe and military exercises on both sides. But just like Charles was saying, this is nothing near like the huge demands that Russia's making, which - I don't know for sure, but perhaps Putin knows NATO isn't going to agree to any of it.

KELLY: Which is a really concerning place to be considering how high the stakes are if this does turn to war - Charles, how does Russia see those stakes?

MAYNES: Well, you know, we've obviously talked about these massive Western sanctions that Russia might incur. That's one aspect to face. But Russia also - if they're looking at the use of force, we have all sorts of questions. Is this an attack? Is it an invasion? Taking Ukraine would seem untenable given that there would be a protracted guerrilla war from Ukrainians. But Russia may be interested in resolving some other problems that came out of its annexation of Crimea in 2014, for example, taking power and electric stations and fresh water resources that would improve the lives of Crimeans, who've been hostage these past six, seven years to the geopolitics of annexation, whatever their views of that decision.

KELLY: So what now? Frank, I'll give you last word. The diplomacy rolls on.

LANGFITT: I think it does. I mean, there are more talks. We're going to see them tomorrow in Vienna at a meeting with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. This would finally actually include Ukraine. And I think the big concern in the West is if talks end, things could get, you know, very dangerous.

KELLY: Our man in London, Frank Langfitt, along with our man in Moscow, Charles Maynes - thanks to you both.

MAYNES: Good to be with you.

LANGFITT: Great to talk, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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