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As Russia-Ukraine tensions flare, Blinken is set to meet Russia's Lavrov

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with his Russian counterpart today in Stockholm, Sweden. The talks follow a gathering of NATO foreign ministers in which a military buildup by Russian forces along Ukraine's border top the agenda.

From Moscow, NPR's Charles Maynes joins us now for the latest. Charles, back us up here for a second, and tell us how this crisis started.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Sure, A. For the past few weeks, U.S. intelligence has been warning of a Russian military buildup - some hundred thousand troops within striking distance of the Ukrainian border. You know, the Kremlin says these forces pose no threat and that, anyway, they're on Russian territory. So, you know, what's the problem? And yet Russia also argues it now sees Ukraine building its forces up in the East. It says NATO is stoking tensions, so there's no reason to pull back.

But I think, you know, fundamentally, this is about Ukraine's ambitions to pull itself from Russia's orbit and join Western clubs like the European Union and, of course, NATO. And Russia wants to keep the alliance out of Ukraine and away from its borders. In fact, it's the driving factor behind the Kremlin's policies towards Ukraine, including its annexation of Crimea in 2014.

MARTINEZ: All right, so Blinken met with NATO ministers yesterday in Latvia, and today it's Russia's top diplomat that he'll meet with in Sweden. Do we know what Blinken's message is?

MAYNES: Well, he came out of the NATO meeting saying the organization was united in its position that Russia would pay a steep price for any more aggression towards Ukraine and warned Russia would face what he called high-impact sanctions.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTONY BLINKEN: We are prepared to impose severe costs for further Russian aggression in Ukraine. NATO is prepared to reinforce its defenses on the Eastern Flank.

MAYNES: Now, Blinken - he says NATO doesn't seek conflict with Russia. It wants to see diplomacy work. He's called on Ukraine and Russia to return to a stalled peace deal known as the Minsk agreement. Blinken also warned Ukraine of what he called the Russian playbook - in other words, goading Kiev into a fight as a way to justify Russian actions. Instead, Blinken urged Kiev to show restraint. It's a message he delivered direct to Ukraine's foreign minister in Stockholm this morning ahead of his meeting with the - his Russian counterpart.

But let's not forget, you know, Ukraine is a NATO partner but not a NATO member. And that's a critical distinction because it means there are limits to the security guarantees the alliance is willing to provide.

MARTINEZ: Charles, you're in Moscow. I got to know what Russian President Vladimir Putin is saying about all this.

MAYNES: Well, yeah. Yesterday, Putin was talking about Ukraine as a Russian red line - in particular, warning that if NATO stations missiles inside Ukraine that could strike Russian targets in a matter of minutes, that Russia would have no choice but to respond. You know, but Putin has this larger grievance here, and it's one we mentioned earlier, and that's NATO's expansion eastward in Europe. You know, Putin argues Russia has never been the aggressor but is rather reacting to the U.S. and NATO moving closer to its borders over the years. And that's an argument that plays well for Putin at home here but, to put it mildly, isn't very convincing to former communist bloc nations who were under Russian control during the Soviet period. And these are countries who, once they got their independence, sought security in NATO membership.

And, you know, I mention this history because it's the sense here that everyone - Russia, Ukraine, NATO - they're all hostage to the legacy of the end of the Soviet Empire, even 30 years on.

MARTINEZ: So on that for a second, because another irritant in the Russia-U.S. relations - you know, Russia says it might kick out more American diplomats in Moscow. So what's happening with that?

MAYNES: You know, it's the latest in this long-running diplomatic row over embassy staffing numbers between Washington and Moscow. Essentially, both sides have been expelling diplomats and tit-for-tat moves to the point where there - there's not a whole lot of people left. I mean, the U.S. Embassy here in Moscow is basically on life support. The Russians say they're not far behind in Washington. I suppose the good news here is that these latest cuts aren't yet set in stone, so there is a window to negotiate.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Charles Maynes. Thanks a lot.

MAYNES: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOULAR ORDER'S "REPOSE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.