Putin reminds that force in Ukraine remains on table, as NATO beefs up (+video)

During his annual public call-in show, the Russian president said he would send troops into Ukraine to 'protect' locals if necessary.

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    Reporters listen to Russian President Vladimir Putin's speech, displayed on TV screens during a nationally televised question-and-answer session in Moscow on Thursday. Mr. Putin on Thursday dismissed claims that Russian special forces are fomenting unrest in eastern Ukraine as 'nonsense,' but expressed hope for success of four-way talks on settling the crisis.
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While NATO moves cautiously to avoid escalating tensions with Russia, President Vladimir Putin matter-of-factly reiterated the possibility of military action today, saying that Russia would consider moving into eastern Ukraine to "protect" the local population.

“We know quite well that we must do our best to protect their rights and help them independently decide their fate and we will struggle for that,” Mr. Putin said during his annual call-in television show. “I remind you that the Federation Council of Russia [the upper house of Parliament] empowered the president to use the armed forces in Ukraine.”

Recommended: How much do you know about Ukraine? Take our quiz!

Ukrainian political scientist Vadim Karasyov told the Los Angeles Times that Putin's comments suggest that an armed intervention is a "looming reality."

His statements come as NATO moves carefully into countries on Russia's western border in response to demands from member states' for greater protection. They also come as Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his new Ukrainian counterpart Andriy Deschystia meet for the first time, along with US Secretary of State John Kerry and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, to work on a diplomatic solution.

To reassure nervous Baltic states, NATO announced Wednesday that it would bolster its activity in the area, but it refused Poland's request for a permanent base. The elevated NATO presence in eastern Europe will last at least through the end of the year, Reuters reports. 

[NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh] Rasmussen said NATO fighter aircraft will fly more sorties over the Baltic region, allied ships will be deployed to the Baltic, the eastern Mediterranean and elsewhere, and allied military staff will be sent to improve NATO's preparedness for training and exercises. 

But what Mr. Rasmussen outlined Wednesday were defensive steps to reassure and protect former Soviet states who are now members of NATO, Reuters notes. He gave no indication that there was any planning for an offensive action. Baltic leaders appeared pleased with the decision. 

According to Reuters, Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics said, "It corresponds to the current situation in the region and takes into account potential risks. I don't think this decision will escalate the situation. Those who expected big bases, maybe (they) will say it is not enough, but ... the response is adequate to the current situation."

The Wall Street Journal casts the additional deployment as a result of a shift from “viewing Russia as a partner to treating it as an adversary.” 

“NATO leaders say it is clear the rules of the game have changed in Europe now that a country has used military force to change international borders for the first time in years,” the Journal reports.

But avoiding further escalation still appears to be NATO 's top priority. NATO military commander Gen. Philip Breedlove said Wednesday, referring to the additional deployment, "It will be very hard to see them as anything except defensive measures they are designed to reassure our allies.” He said he would speak to his Russian counterpart to "avoid military misinterpretation."

He also said that Poland's demand that the international alliance establish a permanent base there would have to be considered, according to the Journal.

"I do believe we need to consider expanding the number of our air-policing bases," he said. "I think we need the capacity and capability to do this in broader terms across our alliance."

At the core of NATO’s decision not to intervene in Ukraine while circling its wagons around many of its neighbors is Article 5, which states that NATO will take action if any of its members are threatened. The Baltics and Poland are members; Ukraine is not.

Time Magazine argues that a purely defensive strategy, and one resting on a narrowly defined mission, will leave NATO on the sidelines again as Russia barrels through international norms.

The North Atlantic alliance made clear Wednesday that “a political solution is the only way forward” in dealing with Russia’s threats to its former fellow Soviet republic. That may be the only way forward for NATO and the West. But Russia may not be willing to play fair.

“We call on Russia to be part of the solution,” NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said. “To stop destabilizing Ukraine, pull back its troops from the borders and make clear it doesn’t support the violent actions of well-armed militias of pro-Russian separatists.”

Good luck with that, Secretary General.

When NATO faced a similar situation in the Balkans in the 1990s, importuning for political solutions failed and ended with thousands of bombing runs against Serbian targets. 

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So it looks like the Cold War has returned: the Soviet Union crushed uprisings in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, while NATO observed from the sidelines. Russia did it in Georgia in 2008, and Crimea last month. It could happen in Ukraine momentarily. Once again, NATO will be watching.

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