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NATO celebrates 75 years with a new sense of purpose and an old threat

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Back in 1949, after World War II, NATO's first-ever secretary general, Lord Ismay, quipped that the alliance was created to, quote, "keep the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down." As NATO celebrates its 75th birthday at its headquarters in Brussels, Teri Schultz takes a look at how well the alliance is achieving its goals.

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TERI SCHULTZ, BYLINE: Taking a brief break from dealing with Russian warfare, NATO allowed itself a few notes of fanfare.

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JENS STOLTENBERG: Today, we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the strongest, most enduring and most successful alliance in history - the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO. Congratulations.

SCHULTZ: That's NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.

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STOLTENBERG: In the beginning, we had 12 members. Today, we are 32. So we must be doing something right.

SCHULTZ: But the sweetness of enlargement success and the gourmet cake could not obscure the seriousness of the security situation for NATO allies and especially for their partner, Ukraine, whose foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, was in attendance and far from festive.

DMYTRO KULEBA: I don't want to spoil the party, but of course my message - the birthday party - but my main message today will be Patriots because saving Ukrainian lives, saving Ukrainian economy, saving Ukrainian cities depends on the availability of Patriots and other air defense systems in Ukraine.

SCHULTZ: Estonia is the NATO country giving Ukraine the most assistance relative to GDP, as well as its entire stock of some weapons. Foreign Minister Margus Tsahkna urges other allies to follow suit quickly.

MARGUS TSAHKNA: The most cheapest and most efficient way to protect all of us is to support Ukraine because Ukrainians are not fighting only for us, but only - and as well instead of us.

STOLTENBERG: Tsahkna used his one-minute speech in the commemoration ceremony to call for admitting Ukraine to NATO immediately, recalling the rush of reassurance it brought his country two decades ago.

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TSAHKNA: It is not impossible. It is not crazy idea to bring in to NATO these nations who would like to join, as Ukraine.

SCHULTZ: But it is impossible for today, lacking unanimous support from other NATO countries, although Ukraine has been promised it will become a member someday. In the meantime, Secretary General Stoltenberg has proposed setting up a five-year, hundred-billion-euro initiative and transferring the coordination of international military contributions from the U.S. to NATO. This suggestion is not only about helping Ukraine, explains former NATO official Jamie Shea.

JAMIE SHEA: It's also a good message to Donald Trump because the contact group at the moment is run by the U.S. Defense Department, Lloyd Austin. So it's very easy for Trump to see this as a sort of - an American-led, American-paid-for effort. By bringing it into the NATO structures, that perception of the U.S. is doing everything will be lowered. Therefore, politically, I think it will be a better sell in the United States. It will show the Europeans stepping up to the plate.

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SCHULTZ: Even 75 years after its founding, keeping the Americans in and the Russians out will remain a challenge for NATO for birthdays to come.

For NPR News, I'm Teri Schultz in Brussels.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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