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NATO defense officials meet in Germany to decide the next steps for Ukraine

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Since the war began in Ukraine, the highest-profile peace mission is happening in Moscow today. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres started his first meeting with Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov. In brief opening remarks, Lavrov said he wants to talk about the need for multilateralism, and Guterres said he was interested in brokering a cease-fire. Guterres is also scheduled to meet with President Vladimir Putin today. These meetings come just after Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin traveled to Kyiv and later declared that Russia is failing to achieve its goals in its war on Ukraine.

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LLOYD AUSTIN: We want to see Russia weakened to a degree that it can't do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.

FADEL: In response, Russia's foreign minister warned the threat of nuclear war should not be underestimated, as he accused NATO of waging a proxy war with the Kremlin. We're joined now by Ivo Daalder. He served as the U.S. ambassador to NATO from 2009 to 2013 and is currently president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Good morning, Ambassador.

IVO DAALDER: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So we just heard Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin say the U.S. wants to see Russia weakened. So is this a proxy war, as Russia's foreign minister claims, between NATO and Russia, with the goal of undercutting Russia's power?

DAALDER: Well, if it is a proxy war, it's a war - it is such because Russia invaded Ukraine. If Russia had not invaded Ukraine, we wouldn't be where we are today.

FADEL: Right.

DAALDER: What I think Secretary Austin has underscored in the meeting he has today with all NATO countries and others is about helping Ukraine to win this war, fundamentally helping a country that was attacked to defend itself. That's what this is all about.

FADEL: Now, Austin says the U.S. wants to see a weaker Russia after this invasion started and with this war ongoing. Biden did make that comment that Putin shouldn't stay in power. He later said it was an expression of outrage rather than a call for regime change. So the Biden administration is not calling for regime change in Russia. In your view, what is the U.S. goal here?

DAALDER: Well, I think the U.S. goal is something that Jake Sullivan said, the national security adviser, just a few days ago on the Sunday shows. He said the goal in the end is a free and independent Ukraine, a weakened and isolated Russia and a stronger and united NATO and Western alliance. And I think on the weakened part - of course, that is what Secretary Austin emphasized. It's something that has been around in the U.S. statements for quite a while. When the United States imposed the export control sanctions way back when the war started, President Biden said that our goal is to weaken Russia's ability to wage war. And over time, what we want is a situation where Ukraine is free and independent and where Russia is no longer able to do the kinds of things that it has been able to do by invading Ukraine.

So there is a longer-term strategy to make clear that Russia cannot get away with what it's trying to do now and shouldn't succeed in trying to do so in the future. It's why we're bolstering NATO. It's why we're helping Ukraine with more and capable weapons. And it's why we have real sanctions that are biting and continue to bite on the Russian economy, in order to make sure that what Russia did on February 24 - invading a neighboring country without being provoked - doesn't happen again.

FADEL: So in part, it is about curbing Russia's power and its ability to do these things.

DAALDER: In part, it is curbing Russia's power until Russia starts to behave like a country that belongs in the family of nations, that doesn't use force to change borders, which it has tried to do repeatedly - in Georgia in 2008, of course in Ukraine since 19 - since 2014, and now full force with the invasion of - on February 24. It's on Russia to demonstrate it is willing to behave in a way that one expects from great powers and from all nations, to respect the sovereignty and independence of its neighbors, not to use force to change borders, and to accept that the best way it enhances its own security is to have good and friendly and positive relationships with other countries around the world.

FADEL: Now, Lavrov made clear that the Kremlin sees this as a power struggle between Russia and NATO, a proxy war, and as I mentioned, he hinted at nuclear war. How serious should the world take this now-repeated threat from the Kremlin?

DAALDER: Well, we always have to be - as soon as a nuclear power is threatening nuclear war, we have to take that very, very seriously. I think the administration is. It is something that is more likely today, unfortunately, than it was before Russia invaded. At the same time, we cannot and should not allow threats and bluster of the kinds that not only Foreign Minister Lavrov, but frankly, Vladimir Putin and others in the Russian government have expressed. We should not allow those threats to determine our behavior. We stand on the right side here. Ukraine was invaded. There was nothing that Ukraine - there was no threat that Ukraine posed to its neighbors. And we want Ukraine to be a free and independent country. And therefore, we're going to help it to defend itself. We've not crossed the line of bringing our own forces directly into the conflict, although under the U.N. Charter, we would be perfectly in the right to do that. It would be legal from that perspective, but we've decided that how we're going to help Ukraine is by sending it weapons, not by directly helping it. The problem remains, of course, that Russia is the country that invaded Ukraine, and here we are doing what we can to help them defend themselves.

FADEL: In the few seconds we have left, what do you expect from the meetings today between the U.N. and Kremlin?

DAALDER: Nothing, really. I don't see Vladimir Putin wanting to have a serious political solution to this problem. He wants to get as much control of territory and control the country as best he can. That's what it's all about for him.

FADEL: Thank you. Ivo Daalder is currently president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Thank you for being on the program.

DAALDER: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.