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What is NATO's role in responding to the Russia-Ukraine conflict?


Vladimir Putin has repeatedly demanded that NATO promise to never admit Ukraine into its military alliance, which, of course, includes 28 European countries, the U.S. and Canada. And this week, Putin justified his invasion of Ukraine as a way to halt NATO's expansion eastward to Russia's borders. We're joined now by former U.S. ambassador to NATO, Ivo Daalder, who's currently president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Ambassador, thanks very much for being with us.

IVO DAALDER: My pleasure, although I wish it was under different circumstances.

SIMON: Well, yes. And I have to ask, what good does a unified NATO do for Ukraine at this point?

DAALDER: Well, at this point, it doesn't do particular good for Ukraine. Ukraine is not a member of NATO, which makes the entire idea of Putin invading Ukraine in order to counter NATO kind of idiotic when you really think about it. The reality is, what Vladimir Putin is about - he wants to control Ukraine. He wants to control its government. It looks like he wants to actually incorporate part, if not all, of its territory into Russia. That is what this is about, not about NATO.

SIMON: How effective are sanctions realistically?

DAALDER: Sanctions aren't going to be effective in stopping the war, just like they weren't effective, apparently, in deterring it. What they will do over time is weaken Russia. And the whole goal of U.S. and Western strategy now needs to be to contain Russia and, over time, to provide the internal mechanisms for change in the regime. That's what we did during the Cold War. It took 40 years. Russia is a lot less strong than the Soviet Union was. A concerted effort to counter what Russia is doing should lead to the kinds of internal pressures that we are already seeing on the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg and other cities for fundamental change.

SIMON: Mmm hmm. Mr. Ambassador, what about the idea that was expressed again by some commentators this week - I noticed both people identified as liberals and conservatives - that NATO provoked Russia by expanding into Soviet bloc countries, made Russia feel encircled, and that sparked the rise of Russian nationalism and Vladimir Putin?

DAALDER: Yeah, we've heard this argument for a long time. And here's the problem. After the end of the Cold War, when the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe and, indeed, many of the former Soviet republics tasted freedom for the first time since World War II, they wanted to join the West. They wanted to join the European Union. They wanted to join NATO. They wanted to experience the same level of freedom, of prosperity, of democratic governance that their brethren in Western Europe had long enjoyed in part because of the European Union and because of NATO and the United States' presence there.

If we had said to the Russians, no, it doesn't matter, let's just have these people figure out what to do themselves, the kind of chaos that we saw, for example, in the former Yugoslavia might well have occurred over the last 30 years in Europe. The reality is that NATO has provided for peace and stability in Central and Eastern Europe and parts of the Soviet - former Soviet Union like the Baltic states, and that now that we see what Russia really is about, those countries are probably as happy to be part of NATO and be part of the collective defense system as any.

SIMON: I have to ask, did the announcement early on that the U.S. and NATO would not commit troops on the soil of Ukraine tell Vladimir Putin he could proceed without worrying about that?

DAALDER: Well, yes. I think the decision not to put in troops in Ukraine, we will look back in history and say, was that really the smartest thing to do? Clearly, politics in the United States and in European countries frankly would have prevented the insertion of U.S. and NATO troops. But without those troops, clearly Vladimir Putin had less to worry about to invade, and we've seen the result.

SIMON: Ivo Daalder, former U.S. ambassador to NATO, president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, thanks so much for being with us.

DAALDER: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.