NPR for Northern Colorado
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

In Shadow Of Ukraine, A Return To Rivalry Between NATO And Russia


We have to begin to view Russia no longer as a power but as more of an adversary - those are the words today of Alexander Vershbow, the deputy secretary-general of NATO. We, in this case, means NATO, and few people are as experienced when he is when it comes to the alliance and the Russians. Before becoming the number two man at NATO, he was U.S. ambassador to the alliance and then U.S. ambassador to Russia. And he joins us now. Alexander Vershbow, welcome to the program.

ALEXANDER VERSHBOW: Good to be here.

SIEGEL: The U.S., NATO, the EU, were all very vocal in criticizing Russia's annexation of Crimea. Given what's happening in eastern Ukraine, as we just heard reported, is it fair to say that whatever steps have been taken so far have not deterred the Russians at all?

VERSHBOW: Well, yes, I'm afraid that in terms of the Russians' ongoing efforts to subvert the situation in eastern Ukraine, they don't seem to be backing down at all. At the same time, I think the sanctions that have been imposed by the U.S., the EU and others have at least given them pause about full-scale military intervention. But the situation's very volatile, very unpredictable.

SIEGEL: In terms of the alliance, what more can NATO do?

VERSHBOW: Well, NATO's done a lot in terms of making clear the unacceptability of Russian action. We've suspended all of our practical work with Russia. We have, of course, taken steps to strengthen our own defenses to make sure that the Russians don't get any ideas about threatening the territory of NATO members. And we're trying to provide additional support to Ukraine itself, although this is not something susceptible to a quick fix, but we're prepared to help them strengthen their military institutions and their capabilities. But in the short term, we're providing political support.

SIEGEL: Beyond rotating, say, American, British or German units through countries that border Russia, is it even on the table to consider new permanent bases of the sort that we've had in Germany and Italy over the years?

VERSHBOW: Well, we're certainly going to take a very serious look at our force posture, including questions regarding deployments further forward, given that the security environment is very different than when we first started the process of enlarging NATO, and we consider Russia to be a partner and not an adversary. Indeed, we achieved a lot in our partnership with Russia. Remember, we had Russian troops side-by-side with Americans in Bosnia and later in Kosovo. But now the situation's very different and we have to see whether deterrence requires some additional stationing of forces.

SIEGEL: I'd like you to put on your former ambassador to Moscow hat for a moment here. Thinking back on U.S. relations, well, when you were in Moscow a few years ago, do you think that a genuinely productive relationship with Russia was lost or did we underestimate Vladimir Putin's ambitions to reclaim Russian influence in former Soviet republics?

VERSHBOW: I think there were many opportunities to build cooperation with Russia, and we actually realized some of those opportunities. During the '90s, as I mentioned, the cooperation in the Balkans. We later came together after 9/11. Putin, of course, was the first to show solidarity with the U.S. in calling President Bush. But I think we began to realize that President Putin had a very different vision of not only of Russia but of European security. And, of course, there's an interdependence between Russian domestic politics and geopolitics, including in the current crisis, because for Russia, a successful democratic Ukraine is a direct threat to the Putin system.

SIEGEL: On the other hand, a very fairly pugnacious foreign policy for Russia seems to be very popular with the Russian people.

VERSHBOW: Well, one can't ignore those high poll ratings. But I think that over time, Russia and the Russian people will realize that they're going to be paying an increasingly heavy cost both in terms of their economy, increasing international isolation, and maybe the bloom will be off the rose before too long.

SIEGEL: Do you think, by the way, that Vladimir Putin's different vision of security in Europe - you've spoken of Central Europe - do you think there's a different view of what the situation should be in Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic or are we only talking about former Soviet republics?

VERSHBOW: Well, I think we can't be entirely sure. The doctrine that President Putin laid out in his somewhat chilling speech in March was a very expansive one in terms of the right to defend Russians and Russian speakers anywhere, which could extend even to some of the members of NATO. That being said, I don't think he's in any way unrealistic about NATO's strength, both politically and militarily. I think the focus of his efforts right now is to reestablish dominion over countries like Ukraine.

SIEGEL: How many more countries are there like Ukraine? Would you count Georgia, Moldova, Belarus?

VERSHBOW: Belarus is already very closely linked to Russia but they're even nervous about the precedent that the Crimean annexation has set. Moldova's very vulnerable because there's a separatist province of Transnistria on their territory. Georgia as well. So, and I think in Central Asia there's a large Russian minority in the northwest part of Kazakhstan. And while they've shown some support for Russia publicly, they have to be nervous.

SIEGEL: There is, I gather, it's a provision of NATO membership that you can't have an outstanding territorial dispute. Some people say that has actually been an inducement to the Russians to generate territorial disputes and to keep the Ukraines and the Moldovas unavailable to NATO membership.

VERSHBOW: Well, that's not an absolute principle. And, in fact, NATO admitted Estonia as part of the big bang wave of enlargement in 2004 before they had resolved border disputes with Russia. But I think the Russians certainly are trying that tactic, to create instability, unresolved border conflicts in order to discourage NATO from developing closer ties with these countries.

SIEGEL: Ambassador Vershbow, thank you very much...

VERSHBOW: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: ...for talking with us today. Alexander Vershbow is the deputy secretary-general of NATO. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.