U.S., NATO meet with Russia over massive troop buildup at Ukraine border

The U.S. and its NATO allies met with Russian officials Wednesday in Brussels as part of a whirlwind week of diplomacy across Europe, sparked by a massive Russian troop buildup on its border with Ukraine. The crisis comes as questions about NATO cohesion persist. Nick Schifrin reports, and speaks with Ivo Daalder, former U.S. ambassador to NATO during the Clinton administration, to learn more.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The United States and its NATO allies met with Russian officials today in Brussels.

    It's part of a whirlwind week of diplomacy across Europe, sparked by a massive Russian troop buildup on its border with Ukraine. The crisis comes as questions about NATO cohesion persist and about a strategic natural gas pipeline from Russia into Europe.

    Nick Schifrin reports.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In the room where it happened, the mingling was mutual. The Russian delegation greeted all 30 NATO members, and, among NATO allies, smiles and unity, during a meeting that was essentially 30 against one.

    But the calm couldn't close the chasm. Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko blamed NATO and its ongoing support for Ukraine.

  • Alexander Grushko, Deputy Russian Foreign Minister (through translator):

    It's absolutely imperative to end the policy of open doors and offer Russia legally binding guarantees of further NATO's expansion eastward.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said Russian actions unified NATO.

    Wendy Sherman, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State: I think one of the things that Russia has done, which it probably did not expect, it has brought all of Europe, NATO and non-NATO allies alike, together, to share the same set of principles, the same ambition, the same hopes and the same commitment to diplomacy.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Diplomacy to solve a crisis created by 100,000 Russian troops deployed to Ukraine's borders. The U.S. warns, that number could double and Russia could invade.

    Despite the differences, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg noted both sides discussed future meetings, and the U.S. said the good news was, Russia didn't walk out.

  • Wendy Sherman:

    The Russians were not ready to commit to the series of discussions that the secretary-general will lay out, but nor did they reject those discussions.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    While NATO presents a united front, there are some differences, especially over Russian natural gas.

    Today, the European Union imports nearly half its gas from Russia. It used to import 85 percent of it via a pipeline that runs through Ukraine. But, since 2011, Russia has used the Nord Stream 1 pipeline under the Baltic Sea to export 55 billion cubic meters a year of natural gas. A twin pipeline, Nord Stream 2, will double that amount. It was completed last year, but Germany has indefinitely paused the certification.

    Many in the U.S. say Nord Stream gives Russia leverage over Germany, and further cuts transit money Russia pays to ship gas through Ukraine. Ukraine supports a Republican bill set for vote tomorrow that would mandate sanctions.

    Idaho's Jim Risch is the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's top Republican.

  • Sen. Jim Risch (R-ID):

    It's no secret I and many other members are firmly opposed to this pipeline. And I will continue efforts to see it and Putin's influence in NATO are stopped.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The administration says there's no need for more sanctions because Germany can shut the pipeline down.

  • Wendy Sherman:

    From our perspective, it's very hard to see gas flowing through the pipeline, for it to become operational, if Russia renews its aggression on Ukraine.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Meanwhile, in Ukraine, they're preparing for guerrilla war. Civilians outside Kiev continue a decades-old tradition and train to become weekend warriors against Russia.

    And, today, the government offered its own diplomatic solution, a summit between Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany that would continue diplomacy born in 2019.

  • Serhiy Nikiforov, Press Secretary For Ukrainian President (through translator):

    We expect that Russia will start fulfilling decisions of 2019 Paris summit and will join the process of setting up a new meeting of the leaders on the highest level.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For more on today's meeting and whether the U.S. is in sync with allies, we turn to Ivo Daalder. He was U.S. ambassador to NATO during the Clinton administration and is now president of the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations.

    Ivo Daalder, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    U.S. and European officials insist they are united. Are they?

    Ivo Daalder, Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO: Yes, I think they are.

    Really, the threat that Russia poses, 100,000 troops, major kinds of equipment, tanks, artillery, exercises, including live-fire exercises that we saw just in the last few days, really has unified the alliance in a way that we haven't seen, frankly, since the last time Russia invaded Ukraine back in 2014, when it annexed Crimea.

    You have 30 allies who know there is a real military threat and who know that the only way to prevent the military threat from coming to the fruition is for the alliance to be unified.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Many European countries criticized the way the Biden administration was consulting them last year over topics like Afghanistan. I heard this directly from European diplomats.

    Is there still a concern among Europeans that the U.S. could make some kind of deal with Russia without consultation?

  • Ivo Daalder:

    You know, there's always a concern about whether the United States' interests and the European interests are 100 percent aligned.

    We're an ocean away. We have global interests, including a particular interest in the Indo-Pacific. And there's kind of an understandable concern in Europe that perhaps this crisis isn't getting the kind of attention that they'd like.

    On the other hand, the Biden administration has really gone out of its way since October, since there were the first signs of a possible military buildup and then of an actual military buildup, to inform our allies about what was going on, sharing real intelligence of the kind that you don't normally share with real allies, having multiple briefings, sending the secretary of state, sending the secretary defense, sending the director for national intelligence to Brussels to talk to the allies, to hear their concerns, and then to jointly draw up the strategy that is now being put on display.

    On the one hand, deterrence, a willingness to take some significant steps, helping Ukraine, building up NATO forces in the east, and serious economic sanctions of the kind that few were contemplating even a few years ago, and, on the other hand, dialogue.

    And I think you heard from the secretary-general today and from allies around the table, as Wendy Sherman, the deputy secretary, said, a united NATO, but that spoke with one voice, even though there were 30 people speaking in that voice.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    We just highlighted Nord Stream 2, the pipeline from Russia to Germany. How significant is that as a source of division between the U.S. and Germany?

  • Ivo Daalder:

    Well, it is a source of division between the United States and Germany, but, frankly, also between Germany and some of the East European allies, particularly countries like Poland and the Baltic states, who see this as a way for Russia to bypass them, to bypass Ukraine, and to gain greater leverage over Europe.

    But the reality is, this is bigger than a pipeline. This is not about a pipeline. And I'm a little concerned that we're spending too much time in Washington about a particular pipeline. What we really ought to be concerned about is a Russia that is prepared, perhaps, to engage in the kind of military operations that we haven't seen in Europe since 1945.

    This is very serious business. And we need to make sure that Russia, if it does do so, does not succeed by changing borders through the use of force. It did so in 2014. And we have got to make absolutely sure that we do everything possible to raise the cost for Russia. And that would, of course, include not using the pipeline, if that were to come about.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Senior European officials I talk to describe that the alliance is trying to buy time, until basically it's too difficult for Russia to invade Ukraine because the ground would be too soft.

    To do that, the U.S. is talking about arms control, talking about exercises, not about the future of NATO. In about the 45 seconds we have left, do you believe that those topics the U.S. is talking about will be enough to buy enough time for the invasion not to happen?

  • Ivo Daalder:

    Well, we don't know. We don't know what it is in Putin's mind. Frankly, other than Putin, I don't think anybody really knows what is in his mind and whether he's going to use force.

    But it's the right strategy, is to say, listen, there are serious issues of security here. We need to get back to a serious arms control dialogue on nuclear missiles, on conventional forces, on transparency of exercises, notification of troop movements, of the kinds of things we did together in the 1990s.

    We need to go back to that and create a European security environment in which everyone feels secure, and the question of whether a country belongs to NATO or not is truly secondary.

    So, it makes sense to put this on the table. The question is, will Putin bite, or will he decide that military force is the only thing left? We will have to wait and see.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Ivo Daalder, thank you very much.

  • Ivo Daalder:

    My pleasure.

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