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NATO prepares to beef-up commitment to Ukraine, within limits

September 3, 2014 at 6:14 PM EDT
The burgeoning crisis in Ukraine and its relationship with Russia are set to take center stage at the NATO summit that starts in Wales on Thursday. Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner joins Judy Woodruff to discuss U.S. and European reactions to a potential cease-fire agreement between Ukraine and Russia, as well as NATO’s stance on the ISIS militant group and Afghanistan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Margaret, thank you. You have been reporting on this all day.

How are the U.S. — U.S. and its allies reacting to these reports of a cease-fire between Putin and Poroshenko?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Judy, the president said something early this morning about, well, it’s worth pursuing or keeping an eye on, but U.S. officials and other Western diplomats I talk to say this is just part of the Putin pattern, which is every time, say, an E.U. summit is coming up and they’re about to level more sanctions, he makes some gesture like, oh, I’m withdrawing my forces, and then he never lives up to it.

So, U.S. officials are very wary of this and they noted with some pleasure that, in fact, France, far from being swayed by this, actually delayed the delivery of that warship that they had insisted on delivering before.

So I think that the one hopeful sign this week, perhaps, is that the “Russian separatists” — quote, unquote — which, of course, the Ukrainians insist is just a front for Russia, did say this week they might — they might settle for autonomy within Ukraine, rather than full independence.

And there are some follow-on talks in Belarus Friday between the Ukrainian government and the separatists. But the concern in the U.S. government is, let’s say everything freezes in place, which is kind of the outlines of the deal or the agreement, that that essentially rewards Russian aggression, because what that does is tell Ukrainian troops they have to pull back and it doesn’t actually mention the Russian troops, and it means that there will be a slice of Eastern Ukraine that will be essentially a no-man’s land.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, how are they then defining success at this NATO summit?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, on Ukraine, Judy, it is to affirm, if they can get it, a commitment in general to the security and sovereignty of Ukraine, but not the kind of security they’re ready to extend to their own NATO members, and they’re very clear about that.

In other words, it’s to make clear to Putin, as one U.S. official said to me, that there are real consequences for continuing this, and one of those is, we have and will continue to beef up our commitment to our NATO members who are right in the same neighborhood, particularly the Baltics.

So, you mentioned in the setup this idea of the rapid reaction force. They’re going to preposition equipment and infrastructure far in the east without violating this agreement they made with Russia back in the ’70s about the U.S.-Russia — I mean, the NATO-Russia pact, which was the U.S. wouldn’t — NATO wouldn’t have permanent bases in the east.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, meanwhile, Margaret, you were telling me you have been talking to people on the ground in Ukraine. What are you learning there?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, I had a rather heart-wrenching conversation today with someone who was from Donetsk in the governor’s office, and they have all had to decamp to Mariupol.

And that is now surrounded by or at least facing Russian troops. And he said they’re only 30 kilometers away. But he said it’s total cat-and-mouse game. Any time they wanted to come in, there’s great fear in this city that they can, because he said they have Russian tanks. He said, we just don’t have the weapons to go up against them.

It sort of sounds like the government forces in Iraq and the Kurds talking about trying to go up against ISIS. So he just said, you know, there are hundreds of bodies strewn out in this sort of no-man’s land between Mariupol and the Russian troops. And there’s great concern, of course, on both the U.S. and Ukrainians’ part that what Putin is trying to do is create a sort of land bridge down to Crimea, because Crimea is gasping without support.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Which has been the fear…

MARGARET WARNER: Yes, and Mariupol is right in that path.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, very quickly, two other huge issues for this NATO conference. One is ISIS. Do they have a goal for what they hope to accomplish in that?

MARGARET WARNER: I think a lot less than they do, a lot less consensus there than what to do about Ukraine and Russia, which has gotten fairly well-developed.

On what to do about Islamic State, certainly, the U.S. and Europe are allied in the sense that because of all the foreign fighters there from Europe in particular, but also the U.S., they recognize the vulnerability. But, beyond that, I mean, Secretary Kerry has talked about putting together this alliance of like-minded countries that would all participate in any sort of military or any other action. And that would be not only NATO members, but other members from the region.

That will take some time. And then, of course, there’s the whole question of, you know, does the Iraq government actually form a consensus government?  That opens the way to more. But there is a lot less consensus yet on what to do not only about Islamic State in both Syria and Iraq, but also what to do more broadly about the disintegration really of the Middle East and North Africa as we have known it for so many decades.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And very quickly, I can’t let you go without asking you about Afghanistan. That was to be the central…

MARGARET WARNER: The original point of this summit.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The central point of this meeting.

MARGARET WARNER: That’s right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What are they thinking now that the election is…

MARGARET WARNER: Yes, as we said at the end of the setup piece, Judy.

I asked a senior U.S. official about this and said, is there any wavering in the commitment of the NATO allies to agree to stay on past September 14?  That is the deadline when authority expires. He said, not yet, and that, at this summit, they will sit down and act as if the election is settled.

They will still put all the plans in place. OK, you, Germany, you are going to take care of here and how many forces will that take and so on and so forth. So they’re going to go ahead and plan. But he said, if everybody gets home — I mean, the new president of Afghanistan was supposed to come to the meeting. He’s not coming. The defense minister is coming, because there is no new president.

But he said, within a week or so after the meeting that isn’t settled, then you are going to have a hard time, because countries have to make their decisions. You don’t just leave in a day.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A lot on their plate.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Margaret Warner, thank you very much.