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Thousands of Russian troops have massed on the border of Ukraine


Thousands of Russian troops have massed on the border of Ukraine, and officials from Kiev to Washington, D.C., fear that Russian President Vladimir Putin is preparing an invasion. Of course, this conflict is not new in the making. So what does Putin want, and how should the U.S. respond?

Dr. Angela Stent is a senior non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of "Putin's World: Russia Against The West And With The Rest." Dr. Stent, thanks for joining us.

ANGELA STENT: Very glad to be on your show.

GONYEA: Russia has said that they are not planning to invade, but they, at the same time, argue that Ukraine is the aggressor here. Help us sort that out.

STENT: Well, Ukraine is obviously not the aggressor. The Ukrainians have been watching, with the United States and the Europeans, this buildup of Russian troops at the border - some say as many as 175,000, maybe less than that. And so what they've been doing is getting some extra help from the United States and other NATO countries, both in terms of weapons and military advisers. But there's nothing that they have done that could possibly be described as aggressive. What the Russians are worried about is the Ukrainians trying to take back the areas that are now occupied by Russian-backed forces. But we see no evidence that the Ukrainians are planning to do that.

GONYEA: In 2014, Russia did invade and annex the Crimean Peninsula in southeastern Ukraine. The Obama administration decided against sending U.S. troops when that crisis was beginning to play out. What was the rationale then?

STENT: I think Obama's rationale - and he made it quite clear - was Ukraine was right next door to Russia. Russia cared more about Ukraine than the United States or the other European countries, and that therefore, if the U.S. had actually sent troops there, we could have gotten into a war with Russia, something that has never happened before. And we're both nuclear powers, so the danger of escalation was just too great.

GONYEA: Does President Obama's decision back then put President Biden in a tougher position now? Does it make some kind of a forceful response to Russia all the more important?

STENT: I think for the Biden administration, they, too, have said explicitly there are not going to be troops going to Ukraine. But what they are doing is now warning about much tougher economic sanctions that the Obama administration declined to pursue in 2014, which they hope, by announcing these very tough sanctions, that this would serve to deter Russia. And we just have to see whether that's, in fact, going to happen.

GONYEA: I want you to elaborate on that a little bit. At a virtual meeting this week, Biden told Putin that there would be severe consequences if Russia invaded Ukraine. What could those severe consequences look like?

STENT: Well, they could be - I mean, the most severe would be ejecting Russia from the SWIFT international payment system, cutting it off from that. Unfortunately, that also affects a lot of other countries, which is why it's known as the, quote-unquote, "nuclear" option. But short of that, there can be other sanctions on individual Russian banks, on individuals who are close to Putin freezing their bank accounts, things like that, both in the United States and Europe. They're also talking about other sanctions on Russian energy exports. So there are a variety of sanctions that haven't been tried yet that could be tried and try to warn the Russians off by saying that.

GONYEA: If we look at the history, it almost seems that every time the West moves to protect Ukraine, Russia moves to threaten Ukraine even more. What's the best way to really de-escalate this conflict?

STENT: So I think the best way to de-escalate it at the moment is precisely what President Biden has offered and the Russians have accepted - the U.S. will work more closely with Germany and France and then Ukraine and Russia to try and get both sides to start doing what they promised to do in 2015.

And then the other thing that they've done - and I think, again, it's a wise move - the Russians have, for years, been saying, you know, the Euro-Atlantic security system doesn't take our interests into account. We don't like NATO. So what the Biden administration has said is, we will sit down with Russia and some of our NATO allies - they haven't told us yet which allies - and just start talking about, are there ways in which we could rethink European security? We're not going to disband NATO. We're not going to say it's never going to expand. But are there ways that we could talk to the Russians, maybe beef up some other organizations that would go some way to meeting their demands for greater security in Europe?

GONYEA: That's Dr. Angela Stent, Russian specialist at the Brookings Institution. Dr. Stent, thank you.

STENT: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.