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As NATO turns 70, alliance increases aid to Ukraine to confront Russia

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization turned 70 years old Thursday. As the the foreign ministers of its member nations gathered in Washington, one their actions was to endorse a support package for Ukraine, now in the fifth year of a war with Russia. Nick Schifrin sits down with Kurt Volker, special envoy to Ukraine and former ambassador to NATO, to discuss how best to engage with Russia.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Today, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization turns 70 years old.

    In Washington, NATO's foreign ministers endorsed support for Ukraine, the site of Europe's only active war.

    Here's Nick Schifrin.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Seventy years ago today, the world's longest-running military alliance was signed into existence, and President Truman vowed NATO wouldn't be a threat to the Soviet Union.

  • Harry Truman:

    There are those who claim that this treaty is an aggressive act on part of the nations which ring the North Atlantic. That is absolutely untrue.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But, today, as it did 70 years ago, NATO is taking steps opposed by what is now Russia.

    And nowhere is that more obvious than Ukraine, now five years into a war between the Ukrainian military and Russia-backed separatists. Late last year, Russian ships rammed Ukrainian ships in waters both navies are legally allowed to use.

    And, today, NATO announced major steps to support Ukraine, including stepped-up presence of NATO ships, surveillance of the Russian navy, and training of Ukrainian troops. That is in addition to $250 million of assistance in the U.S. defense budget, including radar systems, refurbished Coast Guard cutters, and tactical vehicles.

    And to talk about this, I'm joined by Kurt Volker, former ambassador to NATO and now the special representative for Ukraine.

    Welcome to the "NewsHour." Thank you so much.

  • Kurt Volker:

    Thank you very much.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Why is it in U.S. interests for NATO to support Ukraine, which isn't, of course, a NATO member?

  • Kurt Volker:

    Well, the first thing is that NATO is a defensive alliance protecting its members, as President Truman said.

    And when you see that there is a conflict going on in Europe, that a country's borders are being violated, that is something that should be of concern to NATO. We want to see Europe where everyone's sovereignty is respected, where people are secure inside their own countries.

    Russian aggression against Ukraine is, therefore, a threat to security in Europe as a whole.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But NATO, as you know, has not been unified over Ukraine. You have front-line states in the east who have wanted to be more aggressive against Russia, states like Germany, France, U.K., and perhaps, to a certain extent, the U.S., who wants to be a little more cautious.

    Is NATO really doing enough to have an impact on Russia's behavior in Eastern Ukraine?

  • Kurt Volker:

    Well, two thoughts on that.

    First, I think it's not quite fair to say that NATO has not been unified on Ukraine. And, in fact, just this week, the NATO foreign ministers approved the Black Sea security approach for NATO, which is in part about showing support for freedom of navigation security in the Black Sea, and that bolsters Ukraine.

    There has been unified European Union and U.S. sanctions on Russia because of their invasion of Ukraine. Some countries, like the United States, have provided lethal defense equipment. Some haven't, but there's generally a unified approach, and then also to implement the Minsk agreements and restore Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity.

    So, NATO is pretty united on that.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    There is a flip side, of course, to this argument that says the U.S. is — and NATO is doing too much.

    And the question is, why should the U.S. risk provoking Russia over Ukraine, again, a non-NATO member, and Ukraine that, as President Obama put it, Russia would always care about more than the U.S. would?

  • Kurt Volker:

    Well, I think what we care about is for people to be able to be free, to have democracies, to be secure in their societies.

    And so the Russian bear — it's not a question of our poking the bear. The Russian bear has taken a chunk out of Ukraine. And what we'd like to see is, Ukraine be able to get its territory back and to be able to be safe and secure within its own borders.

    This is not a threat to Russia. It's not poke to Russia. It's about Ukraine being a sovereign country that has a right to its own security.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You have said yourself Ukraine needs to get better in order to…

  • Kurt Volker:

    Absolutely.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    … to resist Russian interference, corruption, of course, being the top of the list.

    You had a recent scandal where members of the national security council were siphoning enough money that was supposed to go to military equipment.

    Is Volodymyr Zelensky, a former actor who is now the front-runner in the presidential election this month, the person around whom Ukraine can coalesce?

  • Kurt Volker:

    So, what we have now is an election in Ukraine similar to elections that we have seen in France or with the case of Brexit or even in the United States.

    It's a candidate who has established himself as against the establishment vs. the incumbent president, who is saying that, you know, I have worked hard, I have made a lot of accomplishments, we have more to do.

    And now the Ukrainian public is faced with this choice. Do they want someone who is just going against the establishment, promising massive reform? Or do they want someone who maybe has been disappointing to them in some respects, but has done more on reform than anyone else has in Ukraine for the past 20 years and stood up to Putin?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You're talking about the incumbent, Petro Poroshenko.

  • Kurt Volker:

    The incumbent president.

    So, they have got this choice in front of them. And what's great about this is, this is a truly democratic election. We don't know how this is going to come out.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Zelensky is a total novice. What's to stop Russian President Vladimir Putin from testing him, or using this moment as a way to somehow change the status quo?

  • Kurt Volker:

    Well, I think we can assume, based on Russia's behavior up to now, that they will continue to test whoever is the president of Ukraine.

    They — they have invaded. They have taken territory. They keep the fighting going. You see all kinds of propaganda, R.T., Sputnik, cyber-attacks. The whole — the whole toolbox is on display in Ukraine.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Are they manipulating the election?

  • Kurt Volker:

    They're trying to.

    And kind of, you know, like in a lot of countries, the Russians are involved. But, at the same time, it's very hard to mess with people's own sense of their own interests. And I'm not sure they had an impact in the first round. I'm not sure they will have an impact in the second round.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Kurt Volker, former ambassador to NATO and current special representative for Ukraine, thank you very much.

  • Kurt Volker:

    Thank you for having me.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And as part of our NATO anniversary coverage, Nick Schifrin talked with the foreign ministers of former adversaries Greece and North Macedonia for their first ever joint interview.

    You can watch it on our Web site, PBS.org/NewsHour.

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