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A former U.S. ambassador to NATO looks at what is at stake for the military alliance

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We want to talk more about what's at the heart of the standoff between the U.S. and Russia. It's a tension that's existed for decades. How much influence should the West have in Eastern Europe? This tension centers on NATO because the powerful military alliance was formed after World War II, in part to serve as protection against the former Soviet Union. But since then, it has grown from 12 members to 30. And it's done so by going further east into Europe. Russian President Vladimir Putin sees the possibility of Ukraine joining the alliance as an existential threat because it borders his country, and it would mean Ukraine would have increased military support. And that's what's brought us to this pivotal moment where U.S. troops are being deployed to help stave off an invasion of Ukraine.

We wanted to learn more about this conflict around NATO and what's at stake as it tries to grow, so we've called retired Army Lieutenant General Douglas Lute.

DOUGLAS LUTE: It's good to be with you.

MARTIN: So you've worked in both diplomacy and defense. We know that President Biden has deployed thousands of troops to Europe to support NATO allies. Did you ever think the question of Ukraine's membership into NATO's would get to this point?

LUTE: Well, we always knew that Ukraine's potential membership in NATO would be a sensitive topic. So all the way back when NATO leaders met in Bucharest at the Bucharest Summit in 2008, there was a debate about the status of, in particular, Ukraine and Georgia and their aspiration to become members. Coming out of that summit 14 years ago, there was an agreement among NATO leaders that those two would one day become members of NATO, but they did not go further than that. And that's essentially where we are today. And neither of those states has been offered what's referred to as a membership action plan, which is the step-by-step process that actually leads to membership.

MARTIN: So not long after you became ambassador to NATO, Russia first invaded, then annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea. Could you just remind us, like, what was the U.S. and NATO response then? And why wasn't Ukraine made a NATO member then?

LUTE: The initial response in 2014 with the seizing of Crimea - and as you say then, the seizing was followed by an illegal annexation - the West set up a set of sanctions - financial sanctions, sanctions on energy, technology, and so forth, and individual sanctions for those Russian leaders immediately involved with the annexation and the destabilization of Ukraine. And those sanctions were mirrored not only by the U.S., but by the European Union. And they remain in place today.

MARTIN: OK, but as briefly as you can, why wasn't Ukraine made a NATO member after the invasion? Is it in part because it was that Ukraine wasn't deemed to be ready, or in part because it was deemed too sensitive and too provocative to Russia?

LUTE: No, it's first because Ukraine at that point did not apply for membership. So the Ukrainian aspiration - the Ukrainian desire to be a member has come and has waxed and waned, right? There've been Ukrainian administrations that have taken it off the table and others who have aspired to membership. And also, it's not a quick process. It's an 18 to 24-month process after the alliance agrees to consider membership. And this is the key point - the alliance must agree at full consensus. So today that would mean a vote of 30 to 0 to offer Ukraine membership. And neither in 2014 nor today do we have that kind of consensus inside the alliance.

MARTIN: At the Olympic Opening Ceremonies in Beijing, President Putin - Russian President Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping put a joint statement condemning the further expansion of NATO. According to the statement, both countries quote intend to counter interference by outside forces in the internal affairs of sovereign countries under any pretext. What do you make of that?

LUTE: It's quite ironic - right? - that President Putin signs a statement declaring that they'll resist any attempt to influence the internal affairs of another state. He's already annexed part of Ukraine and destabilized another part of Ukraine, and he's amassed more than 100,000 combat troops on the border with Ukraine. So that seems to me to fly directly in the face of this statement he just signed.

MARTIN: So President Biden promised to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with European nations as the U.S. will contribute to the 40,000 NATO troop count in Europe. What message do you think this response is sending to the Kremlin?

LUTE: Well, I think first of all, the administration has done a good job in what might be referred to as a diplomatic surge over the last several weeks in not only communicating directly, the United States to Russia - the consequences of a Russian invasion of Ukraine - but also bringing coherence and solidarity to the 30-member alliance. This is no easy chore because when you have NATO at 30, you have a diversity among those 30 members. They don't all see this through the same lens.

MARTIN: Do you see the U.S. sending troops to Ukraine if Russia invades? And what's the protocol if a Russian invasion has spillover effects into a NATO nation? I mean, is this something the alliance has prepared for?

LUTE: The defense of Ukraine will be up to the Ukrainian people. There is a potential, however, because Ukraine borders on NATO directly, and in particular, along land borders with Poland and Romania, there is a potential for spillover, as you say. So this could come in the form of migration - mass migration - of fleeing a conflict in Ukraine. It could come and almost certainly would come in the form of some economic impacts - economic spillover.

If the spillover included all the way up to military impacts across the border, then that's an attack on NATO itself and that would be dealt with within the alliance as the alliance treaty demands, right? The Article 5 of the NATO treaty demands that an attack on one would be considered an attack on all. So it really depends - in response to your question - it really depends on the nature of the spillover.

MARTIN: Just any final thoughts on what you think needs to happen now?

LUTE: Well, I think the key for the United States and the key for the alliance is solidarity and avoiding any attempts by Russia to divide the alliance internally so that it becomes self-absorbed with its own decision making and less paying attention to what's going on on the border of Russia and Ukraine. And so far, as I've mentioned, I think the Biden administration and the alliance has done a good job of tackling this at 30.

MARTIN: That's Douglas Lute. He's a retired army lieutenant general and the former United States ambassador to NATO. Ambassador Lute, General Lute, thank you so much for your time.

LUTE: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.