Crisis In Ukraine Overshadows Nuclear Summit

President Obama attends the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague on Tuesday. With relations between the U.S. and Russia at a critical point, there are doubts that much progress can be achieved.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene.

We are getting a sense this morning of just how much Ukraine is commanding the world's attention. President Obama is in the Netherlands for a second day. He flew there for a global nuclear summit, but the standoff with Russia is coming up at every turn.

NPR's Ari Shapiro is traveling with the president. We reached him in The Hague, as he was boarding a van with the press pool. Ari, good morning.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So, tell us exactly how the situation in Ukraine has played out at this gathering so far.

SHAPIRO: Well, 53 countries are here. So it's the first time that many of these allies have seen each other since all of this drama began to unfold. So, in addition to the planned nuclear schedule, as you say, this meeting provides a venue where the global community can organize some kind of a response to Russia.

Last night, President Obama hosted a meeting of the G-7, that's a group of seven industrialized nations. Normally, this would be the Group of Eight, but the eighth, Russia, was not invited.

President Obama called this emergency meeting just a few weeks ago. And his spokesman, Ben Rhodes, said it's extraordinary for the G-7 to meet in a non-G-7 country.

And at the meeting last night, the group decided that having cancelled a G-8 meeting that was scheduled for this June in Sochi, Russia, they will now hold their own meeting instead in Brussels as just a group of seven.

GREENE: And this is not an insignificant thing that we're already calling it the Group of Seven, here.

SHAPIRO: Right. The group has effectively agreed to suspend Russia from the organization, unless Russia changes course. They also agreed last night that if Russia escalates the situation - for example, by invading Eastern Ukraine - then they would move to sweeping sanctions. So far, the sanctions that we've seen have been against individuals; suspending visas, freezing assets, and so on.

The next round of sanctions could be on whole sectors of the Russian economy, like banking and energy. According to one senior administration official who briefed reporters on this meeting, world leaders know that sanctions that broad could damage the global economy. But they believe that not responding to Russian aggression would also have consequences.

GREENE: Yeah. And, I mean, it's worth saying that Russia, Vladimir Putin, the president, has said he has no plans to invade further in Ukraine, but everyone's watching Russia's moves. And now, Ari, Russia actually sent their foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, to this meeting. I mean, I imagine that has the potential to be a little awkward.

SHAPIRO: It's beyond awkward, David. It has made for some very strange moments. For example, when the G-7 said that it was effectively suspending Russia, Lavrov basically said: We don't need to be in your dumb group.

GREENE: Wow.

SHAPIRO: His exact quote, translated into English, was: If our Western partners believe this format has exhausted itself, we don't cling to this format. Although, today, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin said Russia is interested in continuing contacts with G-8 nations at all levels.

Minister Lavrov also met with Ukraine's foreign minister at this summit. This was their first meeting since Russia annexed Crimea. And I have to tell you, the photo of the two men sitting opposite each other at that table was possibly the most uncomfortable photo of two senior diplomats I have ever seen.

Apparently, in that meeting, the Russians demanded more autonomy for Ukraine's regions, even as Ukraine was ordering its troops out of Crimea.

GREENE: Well, awkward moments aside and the Ukraine situation aside, I mean, have these diplomats been able to get to what was the whole reason for this gathering, making progress on nuclear issues?

SHAPIRO: Right. You remember, this is a top priority for President Obama, since his first year in office. And the White House insists that even though the situation in Ukraine is dominating the conversation, a lot of important work is going on at this nuclear summit.

For example, they point to announcement from Japan yesterday that Japan will hand over a stockpile of dangerous nuclear material. Belgium and Italy say they've fulfilled commitments they made at the last gathering two years ago in South Korea. But this is kind of small ball. You know, the U.S.'s biggest partner on disarmament has been Russia. Russia has an enormous stockpile of nuclear weapons. And given Russia's standoff with the rest right now, it's not at all clear that the Russians are willing to cooperate on this issue going forward.

GREENE: And Ari, give us a sense of where the president goes from here. This was just the first stop.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. Tonight he flies to Brussels, where he'll meet with NATO and the European Union, sending the same message that these global coalitions are standing against Russia, and that Russia - as the White House sees it - is isolated on the world stage.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Ari Shapiro, joining us from The Hague, the first stop on President Obama's trip in Europe. Ari, thanks a lot.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome.

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