AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
President Obama left today for a trip to Estonia, a former Soviet republic that is now a member of NATO. And later this week, he'll head to the NATO summit in Whales. All of this comes at a time of great tension between Russia and NATO countries, with Russian-backed rebels fighting in eastern Ukraine and fears of further Russian incursions. NATO is planning what it has called a very high readiness joint task force that could quickly respond to challenges in eastern Europe posed by Russia. But what exactly does that mean? And how does it change things? Here to help explain is Steven Pifer. He's now at the Brookings Institution, and he was U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, and he worked on Russian relations on the National Security Council and State Department. Welcome to the program.
STEVEN PIFER: Thank you, happy to be here.
CORNISH: This idea of a rapid reaction force - is it actually new? Many of us may be familiar with NATO's reaction force, right? It already has one.
PIFER: Right. Well, I think the focus here is now a reaction force that could respond to article five contingencies. That is, article five being the part of the NATO treaty under which allies consider an attack against one an attack against all. And in this case, it's a pretty major shift from where NATO has been over the last 17 to 18 years with regards to Russia.
CORNISH: So how exactly would the - the rapid reaction force be all that different in terms of what it could accomplish?
PIFER: Well, the idea would be having NATO forces that could go very quickly. Within a matter of 48 hours, could deploy to the territory of a threatened NATO ally. But all - another piece of it is - and they're talking about this with regards to the Baltic States and other countries in central Europe - is preparing infrastructure in those states so that they could accommodate, receive and facilitate an easy transition of that force - from moving to the effected country and then actually then moving into action if necessary.
CORNISH: Now, is this something that's likely to get full support at the NATO summit this week? Including from the U.S.?
PIFER: I think the United States government is fully behind this idea. You've had a fairly significant push by NATO members is in central Europe and in the Baltic region for something like this, and their argument is basically that - look, something has changed in Russia. If you look at Russian policy, if you look at Mr. Putin's actions, particularly in Ukraine, it's something that NATO has to think about in a very serious way. And it comes after really going back to the late 1990's. NATO, when it enlarged, tried to do it in a way that was not militarily threatening to Russia. What's happened now is - giving the developments in Ukraine - these countries are saying there is a security concern. There is a potential security threat here that we have to treat in a different way.
CORNISH: But given what you've said in the efforts that NATO has made in the past to reach out to Russia, would this be breaking any agreements?
PIFER: In 1997 in the NATO-Russia Founding Act, NATO made a couple of commitments. One was, NATO said there was no intention, no plan, no requirement to deploy NATO nuclear weapons on the territory of new member states - and that hasn't changed. But the more important or the more relevant commitment was NATO said in the current and foreseeable security environment, there - NATO would not permanently station substantial combat forces on the territory of new member states. Now, many in central Europe and the Baltic States are saying wait a minute, the security environment has changed dramatically, in that you have a Russia that's behaving in a very different way from Russia in the mid-1990's. But I think NATO is for the time being chosen not to revisit that question and is looking at things that would fit within that context. So for example, all the United States talks about persistent deployments - not necessarily permanent deployments. The United States today has about four airborne companies deployed in Poland and in each of the Baltic States, and that's likely to continue for some time to come. Again, they are very important in terms of reassuring the Baltic states that there is a NATO commitment to their defense.
CORNISH: But at this time, how does this further complicate the relationship between NATO and Russia? Obviously, Vladimir Putin has been explicit in talking about being upset with expansion to the east and deployment of military infrastructure.
PIFER: Well, the Russians certainly are not going to welcome this step, but I think the feeling within the alliance is going to be that given the way Vladimir Putin and the Russians have broken the post-World War II rules - using military force to occupy Crimea, using military force to cause chaos and try to destabilize Ukraine - that the environment has changed in a way that there has to be a NATO response.
CORNISH: Stephen Pifer is the director of the Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative at the Brookings Institution. Thanks so much for speaking with us.
PIFER: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.