From The New York Times, I’m Michael Barbaro. This is The Daily.
Today: Russia is making preparations for what many fear may be a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, prompting warnings from the U.S. of serious consequences if it does. I spoke to my colleague, Moscow bureau chief Anton Troianovski, about what Vladimir Putin wants from Ukraine and just how far he may go to get it.
It’s Wednesday, December 8.
Anton, describe the scene right now on the border between Ukraine and Russia. What does it look like? What exactly is happening there?
Well, what you’re seeing on the Russian side of the border within 100 to 200 miles away is that thousands of Russian troops are on the move.
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A top military official says intelligence shows nearly 100,000 Russian troops —
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Russian troops have massed on the border of Ukraine.
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— troops on the border with Ukraine. And that’s prompted fears of an invasion early next year.
We’re seeing a lot of social media footage of tanks and other military equipment on the move, on trains, in some cases, heading west toward the Ukraine border area from as far away as Siberia.
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Tensions between Russia and Ukraine have been building for some time in the wake of —
These satellite images that we’re seeing show deployment areas around Ukraine that were empty as recently as June that are now full of military equipment-like tanks and armored personnel carriers.
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The U.S. called it unusual activity.
And obviously, Russia moves its forces all the time. It does big military exercises, snap military exercises all the time, but what we’re being told is that these military movements are very unusual. Some of them are happening at night and, in other ways, seemingly designed to obfuscate where various units are going. And experts are saying we’re also seeing things like logistics and medical equipment being moved around, stuff that you really would see if there were real preparations being made for large-scale military action.
So what’s happening in Russia is not just the movement of the troops that would perhaps carry out an invasion, but the kind of military personnel and equipment that would be required to deal with the repercussions of something like invading Ukraine?
Yes. So American intelligence officials are seeing intelligence that shows Russia preparing for a military offensive involving an estimated 175,000 troops —
— as soon as early next year.
And Anton, is Ukraine preparing for what certainly looks, from what you just described, as a potential invasion?
They’re in a really tough spot because no matter how much they prepare, their military would be utterly outgunned and outmatched. Ukraine doesn’t have the missile defense and air defense systems that could prevent a huge shock-and-awe campaign at the beginning of Russian military action.
They also don’t know, if and when an attack comes, which direction it might come from, because Russia could attack from any of three directions. So we’re not seeing a big mobilization in Ukraine right now, but our reporting on the ground there does show a grim and determined mood among the military. The soldiers on the border have made it clear that if it comes to it, they will be prepared to do what they can to make this as costly as possible for the other side.
So I guess the question everyone has in this moment is why would Putin want to invade Ukraine right now and touch off what would no doubt be a major conflict, one in which, as you just said, Russia would have many advantages, but would nevertheless end up probably being a very deadly conflict?
So obviously, we don’t yet know whether Putin has made the decision to invade. He’s clearly signaling he’s prepared to use military force. What we do know is that he has been extraordinarily fixated on the issue of Ukraine for years. But I think to really understand it, you have to look at three dates over the last 30 years that really show us why Ukraine matters so much to Putin.
OK. So what’s the first date?
The first one, 1991, almost exactly 30 years ago, the Soviet Union breaks up, and Ukraine becomes an independent country. For people of Putin’s generation, this was an incredibly shocking and even traumatic moment. Not only did they see and experience the collapse of an empire, of the country that they grew up in, that they worked in, that, in Putin’s case, the former K.G.B. officer that they served. But there was also a specific trauma of Ukraine breaking away. Ukraine, of all the former Soviet republics, was probably the one most valuable to Moscow.
It was a matter of history and identity with, in many ways, Russian statehood originating out of the medieval Kiev Rus civilization. There’s the matter of culture with so many Russian language writers like Gogol and Bulgakov coming from Ukraine. There was the matter of economics with Ukraine being an industrial and agricultural powerhouse during the Soviet Union, with many of the planes and missiles that the Soviets were most proud of coming from Ukraine.
So there’s a sense that Ukraine is the cradle of Russian civilization, and to lose it is to lose a part of Russia itself.
Yeah. And it’s a country of tens of millions of people that is also sandwiched between modern-day Russia and Western Europe. So the other issue is geopolitical, that Ukraine in that sort of Cold War security, East-versus-West mindset, Ukraine was a buffer between Moscow and the West. So 1991 was the year when that all fell apart.
And then by the time that Putin comes to power 10 years later, he’s already clearly thinking about how to reestablish Russian influence in that former Soviet space in Eastern Europe and in Ukraine in particular. We saw a lot of resources go in economically to try to bind Ukraine to Russia, whether it’s discounts on natural gas or other efforts by Russian companies, efforts to build ties to politicians and oligarchs in Ukraine. Really, a multipronged effort by Putin and the Kremlin to really gain as much influence as possible in that former Soviet space that they saw as being so key to Russia’s economic and security interests.
And then fast forward to the second key date, 2014, which is the year it became clear that that strategy had failed.
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Now, to the growing unrest in Ukraine and the violent clashes between riot police and protesters.
And why did that strategy fail in 2014?
That was the year that Ukraine had its — what’s called its Maidan Revolution.
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The situation in Kiev has been very tense.
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Downtown Kiev has been turned into a charred battlefield following two straight nights of rioting.
It’s a pro-Western revolution —
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They want nothing short of revolution, a new government and a new president.
— that drove out a Russia-friendly president, that ushered in a pro-Western government, that made it its mission to reduce Ukraine’s ties with Russia and build its ties with the West.
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Ukrainians who want closer ties with the West are once again back in their thousands on Independence Square here in Kiev. They believe they —
Hmm. And what was Putin’s response to that?
Well, Putin didn’t even see it as a revolution. He saw it as a coup engineered by the C.I.A. and other Western intelligence agencies meant to drive Ukraine away from Russia. And —
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With stealth and mystery, Vladimir Putin made his move in Ukraine.
— he used his military.
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At dawn, bands of armed men appeared at the two main airports in Crimea and seized control.
He sent troops into Crimea, the Ukrainian Peninsula in the Black Sea that’s so dear to people across the former Soviet Union as kind of the warmest, most tropical place in a very cold part of the world.
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Tonight, Russian troops — hundreds, perhaps as many as 2,000, ferried in transport planes — have landed at the airports.
He fomented a separatist war in Eastern Ukraine that by now has taken more than 10,000 lives and armed and backed pro-Russian separatists in that region. So that was the year 2014 when Russia’s earlier efforts to try to bind Ukraine to Moscow failed and when Russia started taking a much harder line.
And this feels like a very pivotal moment because it shows Putin’s willingness to deploy the Russian military to strengthen the ties between Russia and Ukraine.
Absolutely. Strengthened the ties or you can also say his efforts to enforce a Russian sphere of influence by military force. And it’s also the start of what we’ve been seeing ever since, which is Putin making it clear that he is willing to escalate, he is willing to raise the stakes and that he essentially cares more about the fate of Ukraine than the West does.
And that brings us to the third date I wanted to talk about, which is early this year, 2021, when we saw the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, really start taking a more aggressive anti-Russian and pro-Western tack. He cracked down on a pro-Russian oligarch and pro-Russian media. He continued with military exercises with American soldiers and with other Western forces.
He kept talking up the idea of Ukraine joining NATO. That’s the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the Western military alliance. And in a sense, this is what Putin seems to fear the most, the idea of NATO becoming more entrenched in this region. So Putin made it clear that this was starting to cross what he describes as Russia’s red lines and that Russia was willing to take action to stop this.
So to put this all together and understand why Putin is doing what he’s doing when it comes to Ukraine, we have as a backdrop here this fixation with Ukraine for historic, political, economic and cultural reasons. And what’s new and urgent here for Putin is his belief that Ukraine is on the verge of a major break with Russia and toward the West — in particular, a military alliance, NATO — and that he cannot tolerate. And so that brings us up to now and this very imminent and scary threat of a Russian invasion.
That’s right, Michael. I spoke to a former advisor of Putin’s recently who described Ukraine as a trauma within a trauma for the Kremlin — so the trauma of the breakup of the Soviet Union plus the trauma of losing Ukraine specifically for all those reasons you mentioned. And the thing is it’s true.
Russia is losing Ukraine. I think objectively, though, you have to say it’s losing Ukraine in large part because of Putin’s policies, because of the aggressive actions he’s taken. And if you look at the polls before 2014, something like 12 percent of Ukrainians wanted to join NATO. Now, it’s more than half.
So you put all that together, Ukraine is indeed drifting toward the West. It does seem like Putin feels like he’s running out of time to stop this and that he’s willing to escalate, he’s willing to raise the stakes, to keep Ukraine out of the West. And what we’re seeing right now on the border is all that playing out.
We’ll be right back.
So Anton, the question right now is will President Putin actually carry out an invasion of Ukraine? And how should we be thinking about that?
Well, it’s quite perilous, of course, to try to get inside Putin’s head, but here’s the case for invading now. Number one: NATO and the United States have made it clear that they are not going to come to Ukraine’s defense, because Ukraine is not a member of the NATO alliance, and NATO’s mutual defense pact only extends to full-fledged members. And of course, I think, politically, Putin believes that neither in the U.S., nor in Western Europe, is there the will to see soldiers from those countries die fighting for Ukraine.
Right. And President Biden has just very publicly pulled the United States out of the war in Afghanistan and more or less communicated that unless American national security interests are at play, he will not be dispatching troops anywhere.
Exactly. So Putin saw that, and he sees that potentially things could change. If the West does have more of a military presence in Ukraine in the future, let alone if Ukraine were to become a member of NATO at some point — it’s not going to happen in the next few years, but perhaps at some point — then attacking Ukraine becomes a much more costly proposition. So it’s a matter of war now could be less costly to Russia than war later.
Right. The geopolitics of this moment may work in favor of him doing it in a way that it might not in a year or two or three.
Absolutely. And then there’s a couple of other reasons. There’s the fact that if we look at everything Putin has said and written over the last year, he really seems convinced that the West is pulling Ukraine away from Russia against the will of much of the Ukrainian people. Polling doesn’t really bear that out, but Putin really seems to be convinced of that. And so it seems like he may also be thinking that Ukrainians would welcome Russian forces as liberators from some kind of Western occupation.
And then third, there’s the economy. The West has already threatened severe sanctions against Russia were it to go ahead with military action, but Russia has been essentially sanctions-proofing its economy since at least 2014, which is when it took control of Crimea and was hit by all these sanctions from the U.S. and from the E.U. So Russia’s economy is still tied to the West.
It imports a lot of stuff from the West. But in many key areas, whether it’s technology or energy extraction or agriculture, Russia is becoming more self-sufficient. And it is building ties to other parts of the world — like China, India, et cetera — that could allow it to diversify and have basically an economic base even if an invasion leads to a major crisis in its financial and economic relationship with the West.
Right. So this is the argument that Putin can live with the costs of the world reacting very negatively to this invasion?
OK. And what are the reasons why an invasion of Ukraine might not happen? What would be the case against it, if you were Vladimir Putin?
Well, I mean, I have to say, talking to analysts, especially here in Russia, people are very skeptical that Putin would go ahead with an invasion. They point out that he is a careful tactician and that he doesn’t like making moves that are irreversible or that could have unpredictable consequences.
So if we even look at the military action he’s taken recently, the annexation of Crimea, there wasn’t a single shot fired in that. That was a very quick special-forces-type operation. What we’re talking about here, an invasion of Ukraine, would be just a massive escalation from anything Putin has done so far. We are talking about the biggest land war in Europe since World War II, most likely. And it would have all kinds of unpredictable consequences.
There’s also the domestic situation to keep in mind. Putin does still have approval ratings above 60 percent, but things are a bit shaky here, especially with Covid. And some analysts say that Putin wouldn’t want to usher in the kind of domestic unpredictability that could start with a major war with young men coming back in body bags.
And then finally, looking at Putin’s strategy and everything that he’s said, for all we know, he doesn’t really want to annex Ukraine. He wants influence over Ukraine. And the way he thinks he can do that is through negotiations with the United States.
And that’s where the last key point here comes in, which is Putin’s real conviction that it’s the U.S. pulling the strings here and that he can accomplish his goals by getting President Biden to sit down with him and hammering out a deal about the structure of security in Eastern Europe.
So in that sense, this whole troop build-up might not be about an impending invasion at all. It might just be about coercive diplomacy, getting the U.S. to the table, and getting them to hammer out an agreement that would somehow pledge to keep Ukraine out of NATO and pledge to keep Western military infrastructure out of Ukraine and parts of the Black Sea.
Well in that sense, Anton, Putin may be getting what he wants, right? Because as we speak, President Putin and President Biden have just wrapped up a very closely watched phone call about all of this. So is it possible that that call produces a breakthrough and perhaps a breakthrough that goes Putin’s way?
Well, that’s very hard to imagine. And that’s really what makes this situation so volatile and so dangerous, which is that what Putin wants, the West and President Biden can’t really give.
Well, for instance, pledging to keep Ukraine out of NATO would violate the Western concept that every country should have the right to decide for itself what its alliances are. President Biden obviously has spent years, going back to when he was vice president, really speaking in favor of Ukrainian sovereignty and self-determination and trying to help Ukraine take a more Western path. So Biden suddenly turning on all of that and giving Putin what he wants here is hard to imagine.
Right, because that would create a very slippery slope when it comes to any country that Russia wants to have influence over. It would then know that the right playbook would be to mass troops on the border and wait for negotiation with the U.S. and hope that the U.S. would basically sell those countries out. That’s probably not something you’re saying that President Biden would willingly do.
Right. And then, of course, the other question is, well, if Russia doesn’t get what it wants, if Putin doesn’t get what he wants, then what does he do?
So Anton, it’s tempting to think that this could all be what you just described as a coercive diplomatic bluff by Putin to extract what he wants from President Biden and from the West. But it feels like history has taught us that Putin is willing to invade Ukraine. He did it in 2014.
History has also taught us that he’s obsessed with Ukraine, dating back to 1991 and the end of the Soviet Union. And it feels like one of the ultimate lessons of history is that we have to judge leaders based on their actions. And his actions right now are putting 175,000 troops near the border with Ukraine. And so shouldn’t we conclude that it very much looks like Putin might carry out this invasion?
Yes, that’s right. And of course, there are steps that Putin could take that would be short of a full-fledged invasion that could still be really destabilizing and damaging. Here in Moscow, I’ve heard analysts speculate about maybe pinpoint airstrikes against the Ukrainian targets, or a limited invasion perhaps just specifically in that area where Russian-backed separatists are fighting.
But even such steps could have really grave consequences. And that’s why if you combine what we’re seeing on the ground in Russia, near the border, and what we’ve been hearing from President Putin and other officials here in Moscow, that all tells us that the stakes here are really high.
Well, Anton, thank you very much. We appreciate your time.
Thanks for having me.
On Tuesday afternoon, both the White House and the Kremlin released details about the call between Putin and Biden. The White House said that Biden warned Putin of severe economic sanctions if Russia invaded Ukraine. The Kremlin said that Putin repeated his demands that Ukraine not be allowed to join NATO and that Western weapons systems not be placed inside Ukraine. But Putin made no promises to remove Russian forces from the border.
We’ll be right back.
Here’s what else you need to know today. On Tuesday night, top Democrats and Republicans said they had reached a deal to raise the country’s debt ceiling and avert the U.S. defaulting on its debt for the first time. The deal relies on a complicated one-time legislative maneuver that allows Democrats in the Senate to raise the debt ceiling without support from Republicans, since Republicans oppose raising the debt ceiling under President Biden. Without congressional action, the Treasury Department says it can no longer pay its bills after December 15.
Today’s episode was produced by Eric Krupke, Rachelle Bonja and Luke Vander Ploeg. It was edited by Michael Benoist, contains original music by Dan Powell and Marion Lozano, and was engineered by Chris Wood. Our theme music is by Jim Brunberg and Ben Landsverk of Wonderly.
That’s it for The Daily. I’m Michael Barbaro. See you tomorrow.
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