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NATO: Russia Uses Shadow Soldiers In Eastern Ukraine


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. We'll talk now with the commander of NATO forces, the supreme allied commander in Europe. General Philip Breedlove has been watching Russia as it took over part of Ukraine and has massed troops near another part, Eastern Ukraine. He joins us on the line now. General, welcome to the program.

GENERAL PHILIP BREEDLOVE: Good morning. Thanks for having me aboard.

INSKEEP: Glad you're with us. Want to ask you about some news first. Ukrainian military helicopters, we're told, have been shot down as Ukrainian forces try to reestablish control over Eastern Ukraine. Based on whatever information you may have, to what extent is Russia's military involved in what seems to be more and more of a shooting conflict?

BREEDLOVE: Steve, it's a great question and, actually, we have been talking to this for several days. What we see in Eastern Ukraine is essentially the same model that we saw in Crimea. If you remember, there were these shadow figures in Crimea that for a long time Russia denied were Russian troops that sort of led the attack. And then quickly after gains were taken, inserted, quote, unquote, "locals" to hold ground and put a local face on actions.

We're seeing the same now in Eastern Ukraine; the so-called shadow soldiers that spearhead these actions into buildings and locations in Eastern Ukraine. And I think the Russians have learned from what they saw in Crimea, how quickly we were able to attack the false narrative and prove it incorrect. They're much quicker now in Eastern Ukraine to get the local face onto their actions after they have moved forward.

INSKEEP: But there's no doubt, General, that when you hear about Ukrainian military helicopters being shot down, that the Russians have something to do with that.

BREEDLOVE: I would not be able to say that right now, Steve. I would love to, but this actually just happened last night, and I think that our forces in theater will have to analyze that. So, let's not jump to conclusions. It surely is an easy step of logic to make but we don't have the concrete proof yet, so allow me to qualify that.

INSKEEP: OK. So, you're not certain about this incident. More broadly, it sounds, you are convinced that Russia is involved here, which leads to the next question. Is there nothing that you can do militarily for Ukraine right now?

BREEDLOVE: Well, right now, Steve, this is one of the things that we worry about. As we have watched over the past weeks, what I have been most concerned about is the military build-up along the borders and the absolute military options that Putin retains to forcibly enter Eastern Ukraine like his forces forcibly entered into Crimea.

And now, what worries me even more is that he may not have to enter Ukraine with his amassed military forces to accomplish his objectives because what's happening now in Eastern Ukraine is creating this perception of lawlessness, inability of the government to respond, etc., etc. Putin may be able to accomplish his objectives in Eastern Ukraine without actually using the larger amassed forces. And this is very problematic.

What I think is important is that we look to see if the ministry of interior and other law forces of Ukraine then can be able to deal with this issue in Eastern Ukraine.

INSKEEP: General Breedlove, have you become concerned at this point, seriously concerned about other countries in the region, near neighbors of Russia, which include a couple of NATO allies?

BREEDLOVE: Absolutely. And this is I think a great new story of the NATO alliance. In the recent ministerial meetings, there was an absolute commitment to our Article 5 defense, our collective defense of our NATO neighbors. And what you've seen was, I was tasked to build a series of assurance measures for our NATO allies who are along the border trace. And wonderful response. Air forces from multiple nations reinforcing our air patrol of our NATO nations. Maritime forces in the Baltic Sea, maritime forces in the Black Sea. And now, as you've seen across the last two or three weeks, U.S. forces, Latvian, Lithuanian, Estonian, Polish forces and now yesterday, British forces - land forces - beginning to exercise together in those nations that we're concerned to bring assurance. And the most important message is that these are clearly, and can be clearly seen a defensive in nature as assurance to our allies, as opposed to provocative measures. And that's the conversation that we're trying to have with Russia.

INSKEEP: Well, let me make sure that we understand what you're signaling to Russia here. You've noted that with these NATO allies, that an attack on one of them would be considered an attack against them all, that if there was an attack on...

BREEDLOVE: That is absolutely correct, and that is the essence of collective defense and our absolute commitment to Article 5. During the four ministerial meeting recently in Brussels, this was adamantly clear, that all 28 NATO allies reaffirm absolute commitment to that Article 5 defense collective defense, just as you described it.

INSKEEP: But let me make sure that I would understand what would happen in a murkier situation. You've just described a situation in Eastern Ukraine where the Russian side seems to be making progress without an overt military attack. There are Russian minorities in a lot of other countries, including some NATO allies. Supposed this situation developed again, in Latvia, for example, or another country that is a NATO ally, does Article 5 apply in that case?

BREEDLOVE: Yeah, Latvia is a NATO ally, and I think that you have heard all of the leadership of our nation affirm that we will defend every inch of NATO territory and our NATO allies.

And I think this is important. We know that there are still Russian-backed forces in Eastern Ukraine. We know this. If we saw Russian military forces or GRU forces in Latvia, now this becomes an issue for NATO.

INSKEEP: One other thing, General, you now do have military movements involving NATO in the same region where Russia is massing troops. How great is the risk of some miscalculation that could lead to a larger conflict?

BREEDLOVE: Miscalculation is something we absolutely want to avoid, and that's why I've said, we are trying to transmit very clearly that what we are doing is defensive in nature and quite frankly, non-threatening based on the sizes of what we are doing. We're establishing NATO capability to reassure and demonstrate. We've already had what I think are some troubling incidents with Russian forces, and these are all in the press, of course. Some dangerous fly-bys of some of our ships, etc., etc.

And so, what we need to do everyday is continue to transmit a communique that we are in an assurance mode, defensive in nature, to absolutely embrace all of our NATO allies.

INSKEEP: General Philip Breedlove, the supreme allied commander in Europe. General, thanks very much for your time.

Thanks, Steve. Enjoyed talking to you.

All right. You've heard us talking about the missiles that brought down two military helicopters in Eastern Ukraine. This is a situation where every fact is going to be disputed, so let's get the best information we have so far.

The incident, we're told, took place about 100 miles inside Ukraine, a hundred miles or so from the Russian border. Ukraine's military has been trying to retake control of the city of Slavyansk. Pro-Russian militants have set up numerous checkpoints outside that city. The Ukrainian military has been taking control of the checkpoints, about 10 of them so far.

But as that Ukrainian operation unfolded, someone fired at the two Ukrainian military helicopters and brought them down. Ukraine contends one of the choppers was struck by a surface to air missile, which if true, would be an unusually sophisticated weapon for local militants to obtain. Ukraine also says two members of the Ukrainian armed forces were killed.



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