DAVID GREENE, HOST:
According to NATO, in the last few days, Russia has moved more troops and tanks across the border into Ukraine. And its army is now fighting alongside pro-Russian separatists. Those troops are advancing on the Southern port city of Mariupol, possibly trying to open up a land corridor to Crimea, which Russia annexed in the spring. For more, let's speak with deputy secretary general of NATO Alexander Vershbow. He joins us from NATO headquarters in Brussels. Ambassador Vershbow, good morning to you.
ALEXANDER VERSHBOW: Good morning.
GREENE: We understand that you just came out of an emergency meeting of the NATO-Ukraine commission and that Ukraine asked for this meeting. Why is this emergency meeting taking place today?
VERSHBOW: Well, the Ukrainians asked for this meeting because of the dramatic escalation in Russian direct military involvement in eastern Ukraine and as you described, the increasingly visible introduction of Russian forces that have substantially altered the situation in the East and does indeed pose a threat of a widening of the conflict. And potentially this establishment of a land corridor to Crimea, which would further damage Ukraine's sovereignty in territorial integrity and also have a huge economic impact on Ukraine.
GREENE: Just so people understand the geography here, what we're thinking here is that Russia might be trying to create a land passage along the Southern coast of Ukraine so that Russia would actually control a way to go from Russia to Crimea, which they now control.
VERSHBOW: That's right because right now Russia has to supply Crimea by sea or by air or over the port of Mariupol, that you mentioned is a key seaport for Ukraine and for its grain exports. The Ukrainian ambassador just highlighted the serious implications if the Russians were to move that far.
GREENE: Ambassador, NATO has been making the case that even though Russia has denied direct involvement, that they have seen - that you've seen satellite images that show that there are actual Russian troops on the ground. You say this is an escalating situation. I just wonder what options are left for NATO to take that NATO's actually willing to take here.
VERSHBOW: Well, first of all, the evidence that we released yesterday is just an example of what we've been seeing for several weeks. But the Russians are becoming more and more overt in what has been an escalating pattern of direct involvement. And the cynicism in their denials is unbelievable. And even Russians are beginning to realize that their own government is lying to them. But as for NATO's options, we, of course, have already undertaken to give support to Ukraine, which has more of a medium- and long-term benefit for the country in terms of helping them with their defense reforms, helping them professionalize their force. The Ukrainians are obviously looking for more immediate support, and that's something that the individual members of NATO are going to have to address. Thus far, several allies, including the United States, have provided some support to Ukraine. But I expect that these new appeals from Ukraine are going to require some serious decision-making in NATO capitals.
GREENE: Serious decision making - are you saying that there are NATO countries that might send in their militaries to help the Ukrainian government?
VERSHBOW: No, no. And as you heard President Obama yesterday, I think he and other NATO leaders are not talking about any direct NATO military involvement. But the decision on whether to provide additional material, intelligence and other forms of support to Ukraine, those are national decisions. And I think in the coming days, along with deliberations on sanctions which will take place in the European Union, all these things, I think, will move into fast-forward in light of the escalating situation on the ground.
GREENE: Is Ukraine asking for direct military involvement from NATO countries?
VERSHBOW: No. In fact, they've been quite clear that they don't expect outsiders to come and fight their battles for them. But they are looking for support for their military as they carry out what they call an anti-terrorist operation.
GREENE: Why totally rule out any sort of direct military involvement from NATO in this crisis?
VERSHBOW: Well, it's a complex issue, and obviously a direct conflict with Russia could escalate. I think at the moment, we're trying to steer things by increasing the costs to Russia through economic sanctions, through increasing international isolation so that we can steer things towards a political solution, but a fair political solution that would restore Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity. That's an uphill effort, but that's the focus of our efforts right now.
GREENE: Alexander Vershbow is the deputy secretary general of NATO. He joined us from NATO headquarters in Brussels. Sir, thank you very much.
VERSHBOW: You're very welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.