NATO Monitors Defense Needs Of Allies Near Ukraine

Linda Wertheimer talks to former Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, Admiral James Stavridis, about NATO's role in the Ukraine-Russia crisis.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

As Ari just mentioned, President Obama heads now to Brussels, where Russia's ambitions in Eastern Europe will again be at the center of the discussion, echoing old Cold War concerns that brought about the creation of NATO in 1949.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

In the last two decades, NATO troops fought in the Balkans and also Afghanistan. But now the Ukraine crisis has pulled the alliance around to its original mission.

WERTHEIMER: For some insight into what NATO's role in the crisis might be, we've called Admiral James Stavridis. He's a former Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. He was on our air just a few weeks ago. Welcome back to the program.

ADMIRAL JAMES STAVRIDIS: It's terrific to be back with you, Linda. What would you like to talk about this morning?

WERTHEIMER: Well, I wondered, because the last time we'd talked, Russia had just begun sending troops into Crimea. You said that NATO might be sharing intelligence or giving logistical support, but you said: I don't foresee contingency planning that would anticipate combat operations. Is that still your view?

STAVRIDIS: It is. I think that NATO will certainly generate and focus on its contingency plans for defense of allies, as in Poland, the Baltic States, Romania, Bulgaria, etc. Those contingency plans exist, and they will continue to be refined, based on new events and new perceptions of the Russian Federation. However, Linda, I still believe we're not going to see contingency planning that focuses on combat operations, vis-a-vis Ukraine.

WERTHEIMER: As you mentioned, Poland and Romania have been talking this week about a bigger NATO presence in Eastern Europe. The U.S. has stepped up exercises, sent war planes to the Baltic States. Is that likely, do you think, to deter Russia, or provoke Russia?

STAVRIDIS: I think it will have a deterrent effect. And I think, at the moment, the alliance is doing the right thing in reemphasizing the absolute sanctity of what's known as the Article Five commitment. Article Five of it says that an attack on one nation, one of the allies, will be regarded as an attack on all. It's the gold standard of collective defense. And so I think you'll see the alliance - both verbally, diplomatically, politically and with military effect - re-enforcing that sense of reassurance.

WERTHEIMER: Well, the current NATO commander, General Philip Breedlove, has warned about a possible move into another former Soviet republic, Moldova, and there are worries that there might be a Russian incursion into Eastern Ukraine. Does that trigger any other sort of response?

STAVRIDIS: Both of those concerns, I think, will trigger an enhanced level of cooperation between NATO and Ukraine, in particular. Ukraine has been a very strong NATO partner in places like Afghanistan, the Balkans. It made efforts in Libya. I share General Breedlove's concern, however, about the massing of troops on the eastern border of Ukraine. That is, in my view, provocative and destabilizing, and I would urge that Russia would withdraw them.

WERTHEIMER: Now, during the Cold War, a superpower confrontation of the sort that we are nervously looking at today was unthinkable, because the U.S. and the Soviet Union were prepared to use massive amounts of nuclear weapons. It was a doctrine called Mutually Assured Destruction, MAD. Does NATO actually still have war plans for a non-nuclear confrontation with Russia?

STAVRIDIS: Regardless of who you posture as a potential aggressor, NATO has very effective, very real contingency plans to defend the borders of the alliance. In terms of the potential for this to turn into a superpower, high-level, nuclear-type confrontation, I think that's manifestly impossible. I think both the United States and Russia are perfectly capable of managing this crisis in a way that doesn't lead to escalation and combat activity.

WERTHEIMER: Admiral James Stavridis served as supreme allied commander in Europe from 2009 until last year. He is currently dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

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WERTHEIMER: We'll have the latest from Ukraine throughout the day here at NPR News, online at NPR.org and later on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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