A closer look at Russia-Ukraine tensions and the potential for successful diplomacy

Russia's President Vladimir Putin gave his annual end-of-year press conference Thursday, and had tough words for both Ukraine and NATO. His reprimand comes as Russia has massed tens of thousands of troops on the border with Ukraine, raising international concern. Special correspondent Stuart Smith begins our coverage from Moscow, and Judy Woodruff speaks to two experts for more.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Today, Russia's President Vladimir Putin gave his annual end-of-year press conference, with tough words for both Ukraine and NATO.

    It comes as Russia has massed tens of thousands of troops on the border with Ukraine.

    Special correspondent Stuart Smith in Moscow begins our coverage.

  • Stuart Smith:

    In a marathon four-hour press conference today in Moscow, President Putin blamed the West for threatening Russia.

  • Vladimir Putin, Russian President (through translator):

    Not one inch to the east is what we were told in the 1990s. And what happened? We were duped. We were brazenly duped. There were five waves of NATO expansion.

  • Stuart Smith:

    After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Russia says the U.S. made a deal that NATO's troops and weapons would not expand further into Eastern Europe. Putin says now Russia is defending itself from increasing NATO encroachment.

  • Vladimir Putin (through translator):

    And now these missile systems are appearing in Poland and Romania. That's what we're talking about. You have to understand it's not us who are threatening. And now you're telling us that Ukraine will also be in NATO.

  • Stuart Smith:

    This week, NATO General-Secretary Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance supports Ukraine's sovereignty and — quote — "right to choose its own path."

    Today, Putin told a roomful of journalists that Ukraine will never join NATO.

  • Vladimir Putin (through translator):

    We put it straight. There must be no further expansion of NATO eastward. What is there not to understand? Was it us who deployed missiles near the borders of the United States? No.

  • Stuart Smith:

    Putin's remarks come a week after Russia submitted a list of security guarantees it wants the West to agree to in order to withdraw its forces near the Ukrainian border. The demands include a ban on a Ukraine NATO membership, the removal of NATO forces and weapons from much of Eastern Europe, and a promise to not hold further drills in the region without Russian approval.

    Russia's demands would involve a major reconfiguration of European security. And Vladimir Putin insists on haste, or else an unspecified military response. That leaves open questions about whether the calls for negotiation and diplomacy are genuine, or designed to fail to justify escalation.

    For weeks, Russian military drills and irregular deployments signal they're ready for escalation. Satellite images show a massive buildup along the Russian-Ukraine border. And U.S. intelligence produced a map that shows five newly deployed Russian battalion tactical groups north of Ukraine, two newly deployed groups off Ukraine's northeast border, more troops off Ukraine's Southeast, where Russia has invaded in the past, and additional tanks and artillery in Russian-annexed Crimea for a potential of tens of thousands of Russian forces.

    Joe Biden, President of the United States: Good to see you again.

  • Stuart Smith:

    Earlier this month, President Biden told Putin in a video call that Russia faced significant sanctions if it were to invade Ukraine. Biden told Putin, the U.S. would increase military support to Ukraine.

    And the administration said President Biden told Putin that NATO's Eastern allies would receive more U.S. troops and training similar to these 2016 exercises. This week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky joined Lithuania and Poland to call for stronger Western sanctions against Moscow.

  • Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukrainian President (through translator):

    Our common task is to deter the threat posed by Russia and defend Europe from Russia's aggressive policies.

  • Stuart Smith:

    The U.S. says the best way to resolve the conflict is to restore Ukraine's border and to return to the Minsk process, agreements that Russia and Ukraine sought to end the war in Ukraine's Eastern Donbass region that began in 2014 between Kiev and Russian-backed separatists.

    Putin today said he looked forward to meeting the U.S. in January. The Biden administration says it is willing to meet with Russia in early January, but the details of the meeting have yet to be worked out.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Stuart Smith in Moscow.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And for more on all of this, we get two views.

    Charles Kupchan is a professor at Georgetown University and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. During the Obama administration, he served as senior director for European affairs on the National Security Council staff. In that job, he traveled to Ukraine six times with then-Vice President Biden. And Alina Polyakova is the president of the Center for European Policy Analysis. It's a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that seeks to promote U.S.-European relations and democratic values.

    And we welcome both of you to the "NewsHour."

    Charles Kupchan, to you first.

    Is Vladimir Putin correct when he says the West and NATO have reneged on the promises they made in the 1990s not to move closer to the East? He said, in fact, there have been five waves of NATO expansion.

  • Charles Kupchan, Former National Security Council Official:

    Well, exactly what was agreed to in the early days of the end of the Cold War remains an issue of great dispute among historians.

    What is clear is what we're seeing today is a culmination of a big dispute that started in the early 1990s during the Clinton administration, when there was a debate about whether NATO should expand eastward toward Russia's borders.

    In the spirit of full disclosure, I was working in the National Security Council then, and was somewhat skeptical of the enlargement of NATO because of the concern that Putin is now expressing about the alliance moving closer to Russia's borders. We then did proceed. President Putin is right. We have been through a succession of waves.

    And, in 2008, NATO declared that Georgia and Ukraine would one day be in line for membership. I think there are a lot of troubling aspects of Russian behavior, a lot of things to worry about, but Putin is not out of the ordinary in being concerned about NATO expansion into Ukraine.

    It's kind of what major powers do. The United States spent a lot of time in the 19th century getting Britain and France and Spain and Russia out of its neighborhood. The Soviets deployed missiles to Cuba in 1962. We didn't like that very much. There was almost a war over that.

    So, major powers don't like get when other major powers bring in military force to their borders. That's kind of what we're seeing come to a head today.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Alina Polyakova, just picking up on that and these points that Charles Kupchan is making, is there justification in the argument that Mr. Putin, Vladimir Putin, is making, that the West has moved too far in his direction, in Russia's direction, and steps need to be taken to correct that?

    Alina Polyakova, Director, Center for European Policy Analysis: Well, thank you so much for that question, Judy.

    And Charlie's completely right in outlining the most recent post-Cold War history. But I think what we have to remember is that, point number one, that, in 2008, during the summit, where NATO said that eventually Ukraine and also Georgia could join NATO, NATO membership is really not on the table at all today for Ukraine or Georgia. We have to be clear about that.

    So, when Mr. Putin says that NATO is looking to expand into Ukraine, that is just completely false. There's no indication that Ukraine will be joining NATO anywhere in the short- or medium-term.

    The second point I think to make here is that it's Russia that has been the aggressor here. Much of NATO's posture in the eastern flank, in Poland, as well as Romania, changed because Russia invaded and continues to occupy Crimea, and it continues to occupy parts of Ukraine Donbass. So it was really Russia that has sort of forced this kind of response and forced more security posture from NATO in its eastern flank.

    But Ukraine is not a NATO member state, nor is there a clear plan for Ukraine to become a member state anytime soon.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, given this, Charles Kupchan — and you have been an advocate for diplomatic efforts here.

    I mean, do you see the potential for successful diplomacy in all this? And, by the way, do you think Putin, Vladimir Putin, has made up his mind yet about whether to invade Ukraine?

  • Charles Kupchan:

    I don't think that he has made up his mind. And that's in part because he is going through the motions of trying to have a serious conversation with NATO, with the United States.

    It's also the case that this would not be an easy war. This would be a big war, lots of fatalities on the Russian, as well as the Ukrainian side. And Putin is pretty good about picking his fights carefully. I'm not sure if this is a fight that he wants.

    I completely agree with Alina that, right now, NATO enlargement to Ukraine is not on the table. The president of the United States has said as much. The U.S. and its allies have been careful about not putting high-end high-technology weaponry into Ukraine, because they are sensitive about Russia's concerns.

    Russia is the aggressor here. They went into Crimea. They took Donbass. It seems to me that, if there is to be a meeting of the minds, it's that NATO stands by its principle, open door, and countries can choose their future, but they can reassure Putin that, for now and for the foreseeable future, NATO enlargement is not in the cards for Ukraine, nor is Ukraine going to turn into an outpost of NATO force posture.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, Alina Polyakova, do you see the realistic prospects that this can be worked out through some sort of diplomatic arrangement, agreement?

  • Alina Polyakova:

    Well, I certainly hope so.

    We're facing a potentially devastating situation, a military invasion. A full-out military war in Europe hasn't happened since really World War II. And the consequences would be absolutely dire, not just for Russia and Ukraine, but for all of Europe and, as a result, for the transatlantic alliance and NATO, of which the United States, of course, is a member.

    So we have to remember what's really at stake here. And that's why diplomacy really has to be on the table. I think the United States government has deployed a huge amount of diplomatic resources to try to bring Russia back to the table here. We have had calls from the U.S. president. We have had visits from the chief of the CIA.

    At all levels of government, there's been a concerted effort to bring Russia into dialogue. Unfortunately, what we have seen from Moscow over the last several weeks is some clear and worrisome signals that they're not actually interested in a real diplomatic dialogue.

    One data point on that is these NATO-Russia, Russia-U.S. treaties, so-called treaties, that Moscow decided to publish very publicly before they were even discussed with the United States and NATO. This was a very, very unusual step when it comes to diplomatic relations. And it was taken as a pretext for Russia looking for a complete no from the United States and NATO.

    And this would be pretext for a potential invasion. That's why the situation is quite dire and quite serious.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And just in a few seconds, Charles Kupchan, you agree the signals don't look receptive from Moscow?

  • Charles Kupchan:

    Well, the proposals that Putin put out over the last week are nonstarters, many of them.

    The good news is, a conversation will take place. The United States and Russia look like they're going to be meeting, sitting down at the table in early January. I think we — this is the best way to avoid a war that would be neither in the interests of neither Ukraine or Russia nor NATO.

    Let's hope that diplomacy prevails.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Charles Kupchan, Alina Polyakova, we thank you both.

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