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NATO is facing pressure to provide more support to Ukraine

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

President Biden heads to Brussels later this week for a NATO summit. As Russia continues to bomb civilian targets, pressure is growing on the military alliance to provide more weapons to Ukraine. Meanwhile, another East European nation, Moldova, worries that it could be Russia's next target.

NPR's Frank Langfitt has just returned from Brussels and has this report.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: NATO allies, including the U.S., have been pouring weapons into Ukraine - hundreds of millions of dollars' worth.

Juri Luik is Estonia's ambassador to NATO.

JURI LUIK: Obviously, the Ukrainian forces wouldn't be so successful if they wouldn't have modern weaponry, particularly the antitank missiles and MANPADS, Stingers.

LANGFITT: Can you give me some sense of how much weaponry has gone into Ukraine?

LUIK: I can only respond that it's a lot. But we see on the ground now that, really, the famous Russian tanks are extremely vulnerable to Javelins. The Javelin missile is heavily more useful and economical to take out a tank.

LANGFITT: Luik says NATO countries slash the usual bureaucracy to speed up the process.

LUIK: This has all been cast aside. The distance from sending a weapon to reaching the people who use it is really - it's been taken to absolute minimum.

LANGFITT: Russia's invasion is now in its fourth week. Remarkably, these arms shipments from NATO allies continue to flow through western Ukraine unimpeded. President Vladimir Putin says they're legitimate military targets. But there are no reports Russia has yet hit any. Russian missiles did strike a repair facility for MiG fighter jets last week in the western city of Lviv, and earlier, a training base for foreign fighters just miles from the Polish border. Both attacks were seen as warnings to NATO.

Roland Freudenstein runs the Brussels office of GLOBESEC, a think tank.

ROLAND FREUDENSTEIN: We may have a situation in which Russia actively tries to interdict arms deliveries inside western Ukraine or even at the Ukrainian-Polish border. And this will produce other debates between the member states. Shall we continue? Shall we find alternative routes, or shall we stop? And I predict there will be countries that say, now is the time to stop.

LANGFITT: Despite repeated pleas by the Ukrainians, NATO continues to oppose a no-fly zone.

Peter Bator, Slovakia's permanent representative to the alliance, says it would mean more than shooting down Russian jets.

PETER BATOR: To enforce no-fly zone also means to destroy all the air defense capabilities on the ground, not only those who are deployed in Ukraine, but also in Russia - I mean, on the Russian territory. So, in fact, what it would mean is that NATO would need to get into direct armed conflict with Russia.

LANGFITT: What do you think NATO should be willing to consider if we get into a situation where he's just bombing civilians?

BATOR: There might be big moral dilemmas. You know, looking at Ukraine, seeing thousands of civilians being killed almost every day - you know, we cannot just sit and watch.

LANGFITT: Bator isn't the only NATO ambassador concerned about how the alliance will respond if Russia expands its bombardment.

Deividas Matulionis is Lithuania's permanent representative to NATO.

DEIVIDAS MATULIONIS: It will be a question of credibility. And decisions which will be taken should be well thought, and some sort of cool-headed approach is very important. And we should not lead ourselves into even bigger conflict.

LANGFITT: For all the talk of a no-fly zone, Olga Oliker of the International Crisis Group here says imposing one doesn't make much strategic sense right now. That's because, she says, the Russians haven't relied much on planes to strike targets.

OLGA OLIKER: It's mostly doing that with missiles and artillery. Your no-fly zone isn't going to do you any good with that.

LANGFITT: Do you think there'll be a no-fly zone?

OLIKER: No - hope not. Look, if there's a no-fly zone, there's a war - a broader war.

LANGFITT: In the meantime, Slovakia said it's willing to send sophisticated Soviet-made missile systems that can take down jets miles up in the air. Beyond Ukraine, NATO allies are concerned Putin may eventually target other countries in the region, such as Moldova, which used to be a Soviet republic. The Eastern European nation is home to 4 million people. It's about the size of Maryland and borders Ukraine's southwest.

Daniela Morari, Moldova's ambassador to the EU, summed up her country's mood.

DANIELA MORARI: We - worried as everyone as also the scale of what could follow, at how long this could be. But having military operations at your border - it's difficult to really forecast in which way it could go and in how the situation can deteriorate.

LANGFITT: Moldova is vulnerable. It's neither a member of NATO nor the EU, so it can't rely on protection from Europe. And Russian troops are already in Moldova, based in Transnistria, a pro-Russian unrecognized breakaway state. Earlier this month, Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarusian leader and Putin ally, displayed a map on national television showing Russian troops sweeping from the Ukrainian port city of Odesa into Transnistria.

Tom Duvall is a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, a think tank.

TOM DUVALL: If Russian troops, God forbid, were to take Odesa and move north and build a bridge to Transnistria through Ukraine, suddenly the Russians could use Transnistria as a new forward base, and that conflict would suddenly be incredibly alive in a totally new and dangerous way.

LANGFITT: Russia could reinforce its troop position there to pressure Moldova and nearby Romania, an EU member state and NATO's ally. Of course, Russian troops have made no big gains in Ukraine in recent days, and it's far from guaranteed they can take over the country's Black Sea coast. But Moldova faces other big challenges. It's hosting more than a hundred thousand refugees, five times its capacity.

And Morari, the ambassador, points out that her homeland relies on Russia for oil and gas.

MORARI: We are 100% dependent.

LANGFITT: What are you going to do?

MORARI: We also working on reducing, but this is something medium and long term. There are no solutions...

LANGFITT: You can't fix it overnight.

MORARI: There are no solutions for short term. This why there are no miracles.

LANGFITT: On Thursday in Brussels, Biden and other leaders of NATO allies will try to figure out how to continue to support Ukraine without fueling a broader conflict that they fear could engulf the region.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Brussels.

(SOUNDBITE OF VACANT CITIES' "COMMUTE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.