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After months of simmering conflict, thousands of Russian troops amass on Ukraine’s border

Russia- backed separatists have been fighting against Ukrainian forces since 2014, but this year Ukraine says Russia has gathered nearly 80,000 troops at its border. The Russian government says it’s a reaction to what it claimed are NATO plans to push troops closer to Russia’s borders. Bill Taylor, former acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, joins Amna Nawaz to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    After months of simmering conflict, thousands of Russian troops have massed on the border of Ukraine. It's the largest buildup of troops since the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014.

    Amna Nawaz is back now with that.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Russia-backed separatists have been fighting against Ukrainian forces since 2014.

    But, this year, Ukraine says Russia has gathered nearly 80,000 troops at its border. Russia has deployed troops in Russian-annexed Crimea in the south, and along the border with Ukraine's Donbass region in the east.

    Now, the Russian government says it's a reaction to what it claimed are NATO plans to push troops closer to Russia's borders.

    During a meeting with his Ukrainian counterpart today, Secretary of State Antony Blinken voiced his support.

  • Tony Blinken:

    The United States stands firmly behind the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. And I'm here to reaffirm that with the foreign minister today.

    And that's particularly important at a time when we're seeing, unfortunately, Russia take very provocative actions when it comes to Ukraine.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    President Biden also spoke today with Russian President Vladimir Putin to press that message.

    Joining me now to discuss what all of this means is former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor.

    Ambassador Taylor, welcome back to the "NewsHour," and thank you for making the time.

    Let me just start with what your understanding is of what is driving this escalation right now and, in particular, Russia's framing of it.

  • William Taylor:

    So, Amna, this is a hard question to answer, because no one can get inside the head of Mr. Putin. No one understands his motivations.

    He surprised the world when he invaded his neighbor, as you indicated earlier, in 2014. So, it is hard to say. It is clearly not what they put out in terms of NATO pushing towards the Russian border. That is just ludicrous.

    There may be some concern on Mr. Putin's part that his popularity, his support among Russians is declining, and he needs some way to boost that. He also may be trying to put pressure on Ukraine, and that is clearly happening. Ukraine is standing up to it, as you have indicated. He may also be trying to put some pressure on the new Biden administration, just to put them to a test early on.

    But, as I say, it is hard to see. There is nothing that would have prompted this from the Ukrainian side.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    In trying to unpack again why we're at this moment, I wanted to ask you about what we have been seeing inside Ukraine.

    Have there been actions from President Zelensky that could also have provoked President Putin to take this kind of escalation right now?

  • William Taylor:

    President Zelensky has been pushing back against Russian-oriented Ukrainians, in particular, Russian-oriented Ukrainian oligarchs.

    And he has also pushed back and closed down some Russian TV stations, three TV stations, that broadcast disinformation from the Kremlin. So, he has pushed back.

    And the other thing he has done, that President Zelensky has done, is made it clear his intent, which is in the Ukrainian Constitution, to move toward NATO, toward the European Union, and indeed towards NATO membership.

    This is troubling, undoubtedly, for the Russians. But this is the sovereign right of a country to make its decisions.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Let me ask you about the U.S. approach to all of this, because, for years, Ukraine has unwavering, bipartisan support from the U.S. when it comes to that conflict with Russia.

    That shifted during the Trump administration, right? Did those four years help lead to this moment?

  • William Taylor:

    It's a very good question.

    So, it shifted to some degree over the past four years, but only at the very top of the U.S. administration. It was only at the very top of the Trump administration where there was any question about the support for Ukraine.

    The State Department and the Defense Department and the National Security Council and the Congress, as you have indicated, on a bipartisan basis, they continued to support Ukraine. And it was just this weird dichotomy between most of the government and the very top.

    So, yes, that did confuse people, and that could have left some question in people's mind, whether it was in Ukraine or in Russia, as to how firmly the United States would support.

    I think the new administration has made it clear that they, as you just indicated, unwaveringly support Ukraine's sovereignty.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, Ambassador Taylor, we heard Secretary Blinken say that the U.S. stands with Ukraine. President Biden reiterated that in his call with President Putin.

    But, in your view, how support far should that support extend? Should U.S. forces be willing to put their lives on the line for this conflict?

  • William Taylor:

    I don't think the Ukrainians are interested in having U.S. forces on — U.S. combat forces on their territory.

    I'm sure that the indications of support from the United States, in terms of naval forces, which are moving toward the Black Sea, in terms of overflight to be able to identify the kinds of movements that the Russians are undertaking right now.

    The other thing we should be doing, and — moving forward, is coordinating with our European allies for those increased sanctions. If the Russians know that more severe sanctions are already cooked, are already worked out between the Americans and the Europeans, that could also act as a deterrent.

    It is deterring military action that we need to do. It is not with U.S. combats forces. It is with diplomacy, it is with security assistance, and it is with economic threats.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Bill Taylor, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.

    Ambassador Taylor, thank you for joining us.

  • William Taylor:

    Thanks for having me.

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