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Ukraine Crisis Tops Agenda At Munich Conference


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The annual Munich Security Conference is underway today, and the war in Ukraine is at the top of their agenda. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was in Moscow earlier this week with French President Francois Hollande, and they were pushing for diplomatic solution. The spokesman for the chancellor described the meeting with Vladimir Putin as constructive and a substantial exchange of views. Chancellor Merkel is briefing Vice President Joe Biden.

NPR's Michele Kelemen is there in Munich, and she tells us that in the hallways of the conference, there's a lot of skepticism and concern about the recent battlefield gains by Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The security experts gathered here for the annual Munich conference all seem to agree that Russia poses a serious threat with its actions in Ukraine and its military flights that have been testing NATO's air defenses. NATO Deputy Secretary-General Alexander Vershbow puts it this way.

NATO DEPUTY SECRETARY-GENERAL ALEXANDER VERSHBOW: We are obviously looking at a period of a more competitive relationship with Russia. And it's important that the West show resolve and consistency as we try to bring this horrible conflict to an end that's consistent with Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity.

KELEMEN: But while the talk is tough, one former ambassador to NATO, Kurt Volker, doesn't think the U.S. and its partners in Europe are doing enough in response.

KURT VOLKER: Thus far, I still don't detect the sense of urgency that I think is required. We're facing some of the most serious challenges to order in Europe to the sovereignty of Ukraine - moving borders by force and a Putin who's feeling like he is getting away with this.

KELEMEN: Volker, who runs the McCain Institute in Washington, says the West could increase the cost to Putin by providing weapons to Ukraine's military so that it can better defend itself.

VOLKER: The most frequent phrase you hear out of mouths now is there is no military solution, and I think we just have to reject that. We are seeing a military solution play out before our eyes on the ground in Ukraine, and it happens to be one that we don't like. It's Putin's military solution.

KELEMEN: Arming Ukraine is one option that the U.S. is considering, but there are some voices of caution. Among them, Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, who's also attending the Munich conference.

KENNETH ROTH: Well, clearly one doesn't want to give weapons to a force that will use them indiscriminately. The U.S. says it's only going to provide defensive weapons. But offensively, the Ukrainian military, like the Russia-backed separatists, are firing indiscriminately into populated areas using grab rockets and, at time, cluster munitions.

KELEMEN: And civilians, he says, are paying a heavy price. Fiona Hill of the Brookings Institution has also spoken out against the U.S. shipping arms to Ukraine, unless allies in Europe agree to do this. But for the moment, she senses, mainly befuddlement about Vladimir Putin and the latest diplomacy.

FIONA HILL: Is he playing for time? Is there something real here? There's just an awful lot of skepticism, a lot of head-scratching, but again, quite a lot of doubt that there is some diplomatic solution at this point in terms of something that would be permanent.

KELEMEN: Hill, author of the book "Mr. Putin: Operative In The Kremlin," says in some ways this feels like the Cold War before Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev negotiated arms deals with President Reagan.

HILL: This has that kind of feel, but will it have that same kind of outcome? Because Putin isn't Gorbachev and everyone's trying to figure out here how far he's willing to go, whether he's prepared to take any kind of compromise. There's a great deal of doubts about that.

KELEMEN: And a lot of hand-wringing here in the hallways of the security conference about how the West should deal with Putin. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Munich. 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.