DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Let's review a day that had so many echoes of the Cold War. Yesterday, 30 miles from Moscow, this was happening in Russia's newest park.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Russian).
(SOUNDBITE OF ARTILLERY FIRE)
GREENE: That is artillery fire, a feature at Patriot Park where the Russian Defense Industry yesterday was rolling out its latest products. The place is still being built, but it's already looking like a military version of Disneyland. An employee showed reporter Shaun Walker of the British newspaper The Guardian the rocket-propelled grenade launcher exhibit.
SHAUN WALKER: You know, I asked him whether thought this might be the best thing for young children to be doing, and he didn't really understand the question. He said, oh, no, it's perfect for children because actually this grenade launcher is quite light, so they would be able to pick it up very easily.
GREENE: The message of this day was not subtle. Russia is strong once again and ready to confront any enemies. It was delivered by none other than President Vladimir Putin.
WALKER: Putin arrived on his helicopter, and there was a big army choir on the stage and a bellicha (ph), an accordion orchestra that was sort of belting out patriotic numbers, and Putin spoke to a sort of carefully selected group of people. It was a mixture of top Russian army, brass, and foreign military delegations. I spotted people from Syria from Iran from Nicaragua and from many African countries. So I think Putin was speaking to pretty friendly audience, and I think many of them probably would've agreed with what he said.
GREENE: And, Shaun, we've been reading this Pew poll suggesting that a lot of citizens in Europe are not that eager to dive into a new conflict with Russia. What is your sense of what the Russian people are thinking about a potential conflict with the West right now?
WALKER: You know, it's a difficult one because, on the one hand, you do have this very kind of militaristic rhetoric. You have presenters on state television talking about Russia being able to reduce America to radioactive ash. You have Putin saying he was ready to use nuclear weapons during the Crimea crisis if it had become necessary. But, on the other hand, I don't really feel that there's a sense here that sort of nuclear war is upon us. Perhaps a few people would go that far, but I think the majority of people feel that in fact what Putin's been doing is strengthening Russia to the point that the West can't dictate to Russia. They quite like this idea of confrontation in the sense of, you know, Russia's not going to live by the rules. Russia's going to do what it wants. Russia's going to defend its interests. But I don't think many people think tomorrow we will be exchanging nuclear weapons.
GREENE: And so Vladimir Putin comes to this theme park and uses this visit to offer some pretty strong language about what his plans are right now when it comes to the military. What did he have to say?
WALKER: In terms of the specifics, he was talking that Russia was going to have 40 new intercontinental missiles this year, which was a new announcement. In terms of the sort of reasoning behind that really we were dealing with the sort of standard Putin, that Russia is not aggressive. It's NATO that's expanding. It's NATO that's coming to Russia's borders, and all Russia's doing is trying to defend itself, and obviously that's been his logic at least publicly all through the crisis with Ukraine, through the annexation of Crimea, while what the West has tended to see is this sort of aggressive Russia reassessing itself and trampling all over international law. And what Putin would say is Russia feels that it had a promise that NATO would never expand, and it's seen those promises torn up, and Russia's responding to sort of defend its own security interests.
GREENE: We've been speaking to Shaun Walker. He's a reporter for Britain's Guardian newspaper based in Moscow. Shaun, thanks very much.
WALKER: Thank you.
GREENE: And let's bring in another voice here. It's Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges. He commands U.S. Army forces in Europe, and he told us that Putin is trying hard to undermine NATO.
BEN HODGES: I am sure that President Putin's number one objective is to split the alliance, to put doubt in the mind of an ally that other countries won't be there.
GREENE: A nervous ally, like Estonia, the former Soviet Republic and now NATO member. NATO's talking about moving heavy armor there and to Estonia's neighbors. We asked Gen. Hodges if maybe NATO is overreacting. What if Putin, after stoking a conflict in Ukraine, actually has no plan to do the same in NATO countries?
Is it possible that Vladimir Putin might be stopping where he is today? And that NATO, by building up forces right on the Russian border, could actually provoke a bigger conflict here?
HODGES: I don't accept the premise of what you're saying. I don't agree with it. Russians are the only ones that are talking about, you know, Denmark as a potential nuclear target. The Russians are the ones doing these massive snap exercises on the border. So this notion that somehow Russia, you know, has no choice but to respond or that the West is being provocative really I don't think rings true at all.
GREENE: There have already been some frightening moments. I mean, there was a close call in the air between a Russian fighter jet and a U.S. spy plane. I mean, we're seeing the Russians talking about adding more nuclear capabilities. And now we have the United States, NATO, talking about building up forces right on Russia's border. Do you feel like European citizens, U.S. citizens, are sort of ready to back what could become a bigger conflict with Russia and return us to something akin to the Cold War?
HODGES: We're building up on NATO's border. These are NATO countries. These are allies of ours that were, are concerned based on what Russia is doing on their border. And they've asked for assurance that their allies are there. So building up forces - let's talk about what's in Estonia. It's about 150 soldiers, all right? Not 20,000 like a Russian exercise that's right on the border. One-five-zero paratroopers or maybe, you know, four tanks and 12 Humvees. Now, when you talk about near accidents, Russian bombers flying inside U.K. airspace with transponders turned off near civilian airliners. That's about as dangerous as you could possible do. And that's the kind of, I think, unacceptable, unprofessional behavior that should give people or does give me cause for concern.
GREENE: President Putin said that only an insane person could imagine that Russia would suddenly attack NATO. I mean, is NATO insane for worrying about a Russian attack?
HODGES: Well, I think that's a irresponsible question. It was completely unimaginable to me that Russia would ever invade Crimea. I mean, this is the day after the Sochi Olympics, after the Russians had spent millions and millions of dollars and then threw away whatever goodwill they had earned the following day by invading Crimea. So our job is to make sure that we have looked at contingencies that were prepared, then also to do everything we can to help avoid a miscalculation or a mistake.
GREENE: Thanks very much, Sir.
HODGES: Appreciate the opportunity.
GREENE: That's Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, the U.S. commander in Europe. You heard his voice on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.