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U.S. is 'fully prepared' if Russia invades Ukraine, secretary of state says

Russian tanks take part in training drills in southern Russia this week as it rejects Western complaints about its troop buildup near Ukraine.
Russian tanks take part in training drills in southern Russia this week as it rejects Western complaints about its troop buildup near Ukraine.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken says the U.S. is planning "things that we have not done in the past" if Russia invades Ukraine.

His comments follow days of diplomatic talks and a deadlock on resolving the crisis brewing along the Ukraine-Russia border.

Russia has 100,000 troops lined up next to Ukraine, with tanks and artillery. While it remains unclear whether Russia will invade Ukraine, experts such as retired Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman are not confident that Russian President Vladimir Putin will hold off. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being most likely that an invasion will happen, Vindman gives it an 8.

"The most likely scenario in my mind is a major military offensive in Ukraine," said Vindman, a former director for European affairs at the U.S. National Security Council. "I hope I'm wrong, but that's what I see."

Blinken wouldn't say how likely he thought an invasion would be but did say that Putin is skilled at keeping options open and is likely weighing his odds on what may work and what won't.

"It may well be that he's not fully decided on what he's going to do," Blinken told NPR's All Things Considered on Thursday. "We have, I think, an important responsibility to help shape his thinking and again make very clear from our perspective what the options are, what the consequences will be of the options that he could pursue."

"If they choose confrontation, if they choose aggression, we're fully prepared for it."

To get a sense of the context behind the current tensions and the diplomacy that happened this week, All Things Considered spoke to both Vindman and Blinken. Here's what they had to say:

Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Adam Berry / Getty Images
Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Where do things stand now after a week of talks?

Blinken said there was still time for the countries to reach an agreement.

"There are opportunities, I think, to address concerns that we all have about security in Europe and to make meaningful progress in ways that potentially could answer some Russian legitimate concerns and answer, critically, the many concerns that we and the Europeans have," Blinken said. "Alternatively, as I said, if [Putin] chooses renewed aggression against Ukraine, that's going to have consequences too."

If there is going to be progress, Blinken said, it won't "happen in an environment of escalation with a gun to Ukraine's head."

"We're going to need to see some meaningful de-escalation if there's actually going to be concrete progress," he said.

What are the sticking points between the two countries?

Russia brought a list of security demands to the table this week. Among them are Russia's desire to have "legally binding guarantees" that Ukraine will never be allowed to join NATO, the removal of NATO arms from Eastern Europe, a ban on intermediate-range missiles in Europe and autonomy for eastern Ukraine.

The demands outlined by Russia would ultimately lead to Ukraine being a weaker state, something that Vindman believes is Putin's main goal.

"There is a deep fear of Ukraine slipping out of Russia's sphere of influence," Vindman said about concerns in Moscow.

"What you have, since 2014, is you have a country that's continued to develop and coalesce around a national identity," he said of Ukraine. "You have a country that's achieving fairly significant levels of growth."

Vindman said that if Ukraine could transition to a democracy, then the question would become "why can't Russia do the same thing?"

Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Kenzo Tribouillard / Pool/AFP via Getty Images
POOL/AFP via Getty Images
Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

What might the U.S. do at this point?

Blinken has warned Russia repeatedly there will be "massive consequences" if it does attack Ukraine, without going into much detail.

The U.S. has placed sanctions on Russia, including in 2014 after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine. More sanctions came after Russia's interference in the U.S. election in 2016. Last April, the U.S. levied sanctions against Russia after the 2020 SolarWinds cyberattack, which compromised nearly 100 companies and government agencies, including Microsoft, Intel, the Defense Department and more.

"I'm not going to telegraph with specificity what we would do, except to say that when it comes to sanctions, when it comes to economic and financial measures, as well as measures to, as necessary, reinforce Ukraine defensively, reinforce NATO defensively, we are planning and putting together things that we have not done in the past," Blinken said. "And I think Russia's well aware of many of the things that we would do if they put us in a position where we have to do them."

While Blinken hasn't ruled out sanctions, Vindman is convinced they won't work.

"Russia's actually hardened against sanctions," Vindman said. "In addition to a hardening against economic sanctions, in addition to indigenizing technologies and supply chains to Russia. So being less concerned about what comes in from the U.S., being less concerned about what comes in from Europe, they've also built a massive war chest — $620 billion — that gives them a significant cushion to ride through some of these sanctions."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Wynne Davis is a digital reporter and producer for NPR's All Things Considered.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.