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Ukraine Crisis Reshapes NATO's Mission


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Don Gonyea.


And I'm David Greene. Good morning. It has been hard to decipher the news coming from Ukraine this morning. The government there announced a cease-fire in the eastern part of the country. That’s where Russian-backed separatists have been fighting government forces for months now, but a short while later; the Ukrainian president’s office retraced that statement. Meanwhile, the Kremlin says it is not a party to any cease-fire because Russia isn’t playing a role in the fighting to begin with.

GONYEA: The West is not convinced. NATO leaders will be meeting this week in Wales, and their focus will be how to push back against Russia. That's a shift for the alliance, which has spent the past decade fighting in Afghanistan. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Not long ago, Russian presidents would attend NATO summits. Russia's not part of the NATO alliance, but that didn't matter. Relations were good.

IVO DAALDER: In 2010, indeed, President Medvedev was in Lisbon. In 2008, President Putin was in Bucharest.

SHAPIRO: Ivo Daalder knows this firsthand. He was U.S. ambassador to NATO in President Obama's first term. Now he runs the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Russian President Vladimir Putin will not be at tomorrow's NATO summit in Wales.

DAALDER: For 25 years, the idea has been that NATO should want and work towards a partnership with Moscow. That partnership is now fraying.

SHAPIRO: That's a polite way of putting it. Here's how NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen put it in a recent video blog post.


SECRETARY GENERAL ANDERS FOGH RASMUSSEN: In Europe, Russia has ripped up the international rulebook and provoked the worst security crisis in a quarter of a century.

SHAPIRO: He's referring, of course, to Ukraine, where Russia first annexed Crimea and then, according to the West, instigated uprisings in the East that have now brought Ukraine close to civil war. Nick Witney is with the European Council on Foreign Relations.

NICK WITNEY: Critically, Ukraine is not a NATO ally. It's not one of the 28 who enjoy the collective security guarantee.

SHAPIRO: That collective security guarantee is the centerpiece of the NATO alliance. It says an attack on one member state is an attack on all. For example, if you attack Warsaw in Poland, the U.S. and others say they will respond as though you attacked London or New York.

WITNEY: I don't think there is any threat at all from Putin to any of the 28 NATO states. He went for Ukraine precisely because they weren't covered by the NATO guarantee. This is not a country that's going to have a gratuitous go at the West.

SHAPIRO: Well, if we accept that, then what role does NATO have to play?

WITNEY: NATO is there for deterrence. So you immediately have to discount all my happy thoughts and say, very easy for you to say that, sitting in London. You wouldn't feel so relaxed about it if you were sitting in Tallinn or in Warsaw.

SHAPIRO: And does that explain why President Obama is going to Tallinn, Estonia before he goes to Cardiff, Wales for this summit?

WITNEY: It's obviously a very symbolic move.

SHAPIRO: President Obama is in Estonia today, a NATO country that shares a border with Russia. He's offering assurances that if Russia tries to mess with Estonia, NATO will step up. But it's not so clear-cut, says Xenia Wickett. She runs the U.S. program at the Chatham House Royal Institute for International Affairs.

XENIA WICKETT: NATO made very, very clear, historically, where its red lines are. If you actually invade a country that's a NATO member state, that's a red line. We will respond to that. What some of NATO's potential adversaries are beginning to realize now is, yeah, but there's a lot of space in the gray areas.

SHAPIRO: Look at eastern Ukraine. Russia has caused enormous trouble there without ever staging a formal invasion. Moscow still claims the uprisings are purely local. So what if Russia does the same thing in Estonia?

WICKETT: Are we really going to consider that a red line? How would the Americans, how would the Brits, how would the French leadership defend to their people that actually a little bit of funny business, as it were, across the border, is worth investing troops on the ground? That would be tough.

SHAPIRO: NATO leaders say this meeting in Wales will underscore the commitment to collective security and bolster those words with actions. Secretary General Rasmussen even says NATO members will agree to man new military bases near the Russian border. That move is sure to anger Moscow and make the chilly relationship between Russia and NATO even colder. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.