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NATO wants proof after Russia says it's pulling back troops from Ukraine's borders

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Russia claims that it has pulled some troops from the border with Ukraine, but NATO wants proof. Here's Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaking with reporters this morning.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JENS STOLTENBERG: So far, we have not seen any de-escalation on the ground from the Russian side.

MARTIN: NATO defense ministers are meeting today and tomorrow. Last week, U.S. officials said a Russian attack on Ukraine was imminent, even specifying from intelligence reports that it could come today. That has not happened.

Joining us now from Brussels, reporter Teri Schultz, and NPR's Frank Langfitt is with us from Ukraine's capital, Kyiv. Welcome to both of you.

TERI SCHULTZ, BYLINE: Hi.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: Frank, I want to start with you. What are you hearing from people in Kyiv right now?

LANGFITT: What's really interesting - I sort of expected more relief on the streets this morning. But there was sort of a surreal calm. And I think that when you talk to people here, as I'm sure that you did when you were reporting here, they've been living with the threat from Russia since 2014. That was when Russia seized Crimea. And frankly, I think a lot of people here just - they're exhausted. And so what's interesting is in the days leading up to a possible attack, you didn't see panic in the streets. You didn't see people rushing, frankly, to leave town. And one reason is that despite this massive buildup we've all been following, most people here didn't really think and still don't think that Russia will launch a mass invasion. They think that for Russia it would be too costly and certainly very costly here for Ukrainians in terms of lives.

And I ran into a woman who was coming off the subway today. She works for a TV company. Her name is Halyna Kobylko. And here's what she had to say.

HALYNA KOBYLKO: (Through interpreter) I thought there was a 1% chance that it might happen. But I also remember the case when Russia invaded Georgia. I sleep well. I didn't withdraw any money from the bank. I think this is all just geopolitical manipulation.

MARTIN: I guess that would be, you know, a natural response when you've been at war this long and it feels like one long cycle.

Teri, let's talk about this NATO defense ministers meeting. What is expected to come from this?

SCHULTZ: Well, Rachel, February 16 was already the date for this regular NATO defense ministers meeting, but obviously it got a lot more significant in the weeks and especially the latest days leading up to this meeting.

MARTIN: Yeah.

SCHULTZ: And there are plenty of things allies need to talk about. But it's fair to say that everything will be dominated by trying to read these latest signals from the Kremlin. And NATO's secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, says there is reason for cautious optimism now. But he also says NATO continues to prepare for the worst. And we have to remember that we're not just talking about Ukraine. Russia's also sent some 30,000 troops into Belarus. And that's a level NATO says is unseen since the end of the Cold War. Belarus directly borders Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, which are among those allies asking for some - more support, including at this meeting. So I think we're going to see some tangible reinforcements being discussed. For example, we expect in the coming weeks or months that a new NATO battalion will be sent to Romania, and that will be led by the French. And I think other countries may well announce new ways that they also will help back up the eastern flank under these circumstances.

MARTIN: Frank, the Russian government insists that it has sent some troops home. President Biden says there are still 150,000 Russian forces massed near the Ukrainian border. Ukraine's president says he hasn't seen proof of a pullback. So, I mean, are people in Kyiv still in this holding pattern? Do they buy into...

LANGFITT: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...The significance of any of this?

LANGFITT: No, I don't think so at all. I mean, I think that they will believe it when they see large numbers of troops heading back to the barracks. Very few people in Ukraine trust Vladimir Putin. In a poll last year, about 80% of people had a negative opinion of him. And also, there's pressure from Russia. It's sort of part of the fabric of the country. Russia controls the Crimean Peninsula to the south. The Russian-backed separatists - they continue to wage war in the east. And so even if troops pull back, you know, Russian soldiers or Russian proxies - they still control an area of this country that's larger than Switzerland.

MARTIN: Right. And, Teri, NATO too is saying that they haven't seen proof yet that there's been any significant action by Russia to de-escalate the situation.

SCHULTZ: Exactly - just like in Ukraine. You know, they're hoping that this means diplomacy is not completely dead. But that's not enough to reassure anyone at this point. NATO says it has seen no substantive change in Moscow's capacity to launch an attack.

I spoke with the U.S. Ambassador to NATO, Julie Smith, shortly after the Russian Defense Ministry made this announcement.

JULIE SMITH: We've had other instances where they've made similar claims, and, in fact, the facts on the ground have proven otherwise. Certainly, we wouldn't want to see a situation where they're taking troops from the south and moving them to the east. I mean, the facts of the matter are that we do not want a buildup of over 100,000 Russian troops on Ukraine's border. We would expect in a moment of de-escalation they would move considerably away from - far from the border.

SCHULTZ: And NATO underscores that just shifting troops around is not enough because you can move people so quickly. Until you pull back the heavy weapons that are in place and dismantle all this combat support infrastructure that's been built up over the last months, the conclusion for defense planners has to remain that a Russian attack is possible at any moment.

MARTIN: Frank, there doesn't have to be a ground war to destabilize Ukraine, right? I mean, just the threat...

LANGFITT: No.

MARTIN: ...Has affected the economy. And even yesterday - I mean, there were some cyberattacks, no?

LANGFITT: Yeah, there were. I mean, there were two attacks on apps from state-run banks. They were restored. Hackers also took down the Ministry of Defense, armed services websites. Authorities, of course, haven't identified who was behind those attacks. You know, it's often very hard to tell. But it was a reminder for Ukrainians of the kind of threats that they faced. Many analysts here say that they think Vladimir Putin's ultimate strategy is to try to use cyber, disinformation, economic pressure to wear down the Ukrainians, divide the country and ultimately destabilize the government.

MARTIN: So, Teri, the big question really is, is the U.S. and NATO - are they prepared to make a concession to Vladimir Putin to end this crisis, right? - because Putin has said this is about Russia's own security.

SCHULTZ: That's right. One thing Ukraine can count on is that NATO will never give in to that Russian demand that it can close off membership, that Ukraine could never become a member. But it's also not close to becoming a member. And so individual governments, like the U.S., the U.K. and Canada, have sent some lethal weapons on their own. But other than that, they will also provide some cyber resilience training. But otherwise, I think that we're going to see the Ukrainian defense minister join the NATO meeting tomorrow and ask for more support.

MARTIN: Teri Schultz reporting from Brussels and NPR's Frank Langfitt in Kyiv. Thanks to you both. We appreciate it.

LANGFITT: Great to talk, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.