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Russia Cautions Against A Return Of Cold War Rhetoric


Ever since Russia annexed Crimea, NATO has been watching and waiting for Russia's next moves. This morning, NATO's military commander, U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, said Russia has the forces it needs along Ukraine's border to carryout a full scale invasion of the eastern part of that country within a matter of days. Hoping to exert some pressure, NATO announced its suspending what it calls practical civilian and military cooperation with Russia.

Russia's government for its part said neither side will gain from what it called a return to Cold War rhetoric. But these tensions are familiar in some ways.

As NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, Secretary of State John Kerry has been keeping the line open to his Russian counterpart.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: When Secretary Kerry turned his plane around last weekend to go to Paris to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, a former ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, reminded his Facebook followers of another moment of high drama between the White House and the Kremlin. It was the Berlin crisis in 1961. And then-President John F. Kennedy had this to say about diplomacy with the Soviets.

PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY: We cannot negotiate with those who say what's mine is mine and what's yours is negotiable.

KELEMEN: That is a strong diplomatic principle, says Stephen Sestanovich of the Council on Foreign Relations. But he adds Kennedy didn't actually stick to it.

STEPHEN SESTANOVICH: His approach to Berlin was to threaten military calamity if the Russians did anything. And then try to find every way of negotiating a new deal for the status of West Berlin.

KELEMEN: Sestanovich says Kennedy's military threats turned about to be sufficiently credible so the Soviets were impressed and restrained. The same can't be said of today's crisis over Ukraine. Russia looks to be on a roll after annexing Crimea and massing troops on the border. So there are risks, he says, to talking to Russia now about the things Moscow is seeking in Ukraine; more autonomy and more protection for Russian speakers.

SESTANOVICH: To offer them a peaceful way to dismantle Ukraine is really to give them a kind of geopolitical jackpot that they never dreamed of. Putin's policy in Ukraine is, except for Crimea, a failure. He's united the country against him where he thought he might be able to dominate it.

KELEMEN: Secretary Kerry insists he's not making decisions for Ukrainians but consulting the new authorities in Kiev and keeping them up to date on his diplomacy. President Bush's National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley says he hopes that these talks and phones calls are leading up to broader negotiations about relations between the two former Soviet states.

STEPHEN HADLEY: That should be a conversation that the United States should be facilitating between Ukrainians and Russians. It should not be a closed-door conversation between the American secretary of state and the Russian foreign minister, where the two of them decide the future of Ukraine.

KELEMEN: One longtime Ukraine watcher, Adrian Karatnycky of the Atlantic Council, doesn't sound quite as alarmed about the closed-door meetings, though.

ADRIAN KARATNYCKY: I do think it's appropriate because I do think it's something that was initiated from the Russian side. And I think it's a sign that the Russians are looking for a way to step back from the precipice.

KELEMEN: Ukraine needs to reform its highly centralized state anyway, he says. It needs local governments, local police and some flexibility on language laws.

KARATNYCKY: So I think there are ways of giving Putin the appearance of extracting some concessions without sacrificing anything in the nature of good policy.

KELEMEN: None of that will solve the issue of Crimea, Karatnycky says, but it could ease tensions along the border as Ukraine heads into elections.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.


GREENE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.

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