U.S. relocates embassy operations in Ukraine as Russia threatens to invade

Germany's chancellor visited Kiev Monday ahead of a meeting with Vladimir Putin as Russia hinted diplomacy could continue on the Ukraine crisis. But will any of this forestall a Russian invasion? Andrew Weiss, who worked on Russian affairs for the Bush and Clinton administrations and is now vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, joins Nick Schifrin with more.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Today in Moscow, Russia hinted that diplomacy could continue over the crisis in Ukraine. And the German chancellor visited the capital, Kyiv, ahead of a meeting with Russia's President Vladimir Putin tomorrow.

    But could any of this diplomacy forestall a Russian invasion? The Russian military is still increasing its preparations for war.

    Again tonight, Nick Schifrin has our report.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Near the Belarus-Ukraine border, Russia is preparing its troops, jets, and tanks. U.S. officials say those troops are in a heightened readiness compared to even a few days ago and fear a military campaign could start any day.

    Until then, there's still diplomacy. In Kyiv, President Volodymyr Zelensky hosted German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

  • Olaf Scholz, German Chancellor (through translator):

    Further military aggression against Ukraine would have serious political, economic and geostrategic consequences for Russia.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Today, Germany sent additional soldiers and vehicles to Lithuania to bolster NATO's eastern flank. But Germany has refused to provide Ukraine weapons. And, in public, Scholz will not threaten the Russian-German gas pipeline Nord Stream 2 if Russia invades.

  • Ostap Kryvdyk, Activist, Movement Against Capitulation:

    He should sanction Nord Stream 2, so Putin would not be able to blackmail Europe with energy.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Scholz will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin tomorrow.

    Today, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told Putin that diplomacy was still possible.

  • Sergey Lavrov, Russian Foreign Minister (through translator):

    Being the head of the Foreign Ministry, I must say that there is always a chance. The German chancellor is coming tomorrow. It seems to me that our options are far from exhausted, but they should not continue indefinitely.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But the U.S. is still preparing for the worst.

    Today, the U.S. closed its Kyiv embassy entirely and moved operations to the western city of Lviv, a decision that Zelensky criticized.

  • Volodymyr Zelenksy, Ukrainian President (through translator):

    It's a big mistake that some embassies moved to Western Ukraine. It's their decision, but Western Ukraine doesn't exist.It's a united Ukraine.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Zelensky has taken pains to urge calm, but there are signs of Ukraine preparing for invasion. And Ukraine's military launched its own exercises. U.S. officials fear Moscow will use that training to claim a Ukrainian attack on Russian troops or Russian allies.

  • Jake Sullivan, U.S. National Security Adviser:

    The Russian media has been laying the groundwork for this publicly by trying to condition their public that some kind of attack by the Ukrainians is imminent.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That is evident on the Web site of R.T., formerly known as Russia Today, stories about British-trained — quote — "saboteurs" planning attacks and American mercenaries preparing a provocation using chemical weapons.

    R.T.'s campaign is global. R.T. Spanish reports similar stories. And, in December, Putin said anti-Russian sentiment in Eastern Ukraine could kill Russian allies.

  • Vladimir Putin, Russian President (through translator):

    I must also speak about Russophobia as the first step towards genocide.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And that leads to discussions on Russian media about the military needing to fight a defensive war in Ukraine, including by R.T.'s editor-in-chief, Margarita Simonyan.

    MARGARITA SIMONYAN, Editor in Chief, R.T. (through translator): Russians will not fight Ukrainians. Russians will defend other Russians and Ukrainians like them.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In a sea of Kremlin-influenced media, TV Rain is an island of independence.

    Masha Borzunova hosts the show "Fake News" that calls out Russian state media propaganda.

  • Masha Borzunova, News Anchor, TV Rain (through translator):

    It is different speculations and manipulations around the topic of Ukraine. That Russia is the most harmless country in the world and that, if anything happens, Russia is ready to respond.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Russian media portrays the Ukrainian government as American-funded Nazis, an attempt to rally Russians with nationalist pride against a common enemy.

  • Masha Borzunova (through translator):

    These are constant parallels with the Second World War that, right now, there are Nazis in charge of the Ukrainian authorities, and it's them, not Ukrainians, that the Russian military will fight if something happens.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Manipulated Russian media stories that help make the case for war aren't new.

    In May 2014, dozens of pro-Russian separatists died in Odessa, Ukraine. Russian media exaggerated the attack, even using an actress to play a victim. We know she was an actress because she appeared in unrelated pro-Russian stories as three entirely different people.

    TV Rain isn't even on TV anymore, after cable providers stopped airing its content. In all, the Kremlin has targeted more than a dozen critical newsrooms.

  • Masha Borzunova (through translator):

    By diverting attention from domestic problems to problems in Ukraine, it is as if the state TV presenter is asking us, do you want the same thing to happen here?

    Almost all independent media in Russia have been declared foreign agents. Yes, it is getting harder, but TV Rain is still an independent channel, and I hope it will stay that way.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For more on all of this, we turn to Andrew Weiss. He worked on Russian affairs in both the George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations. He is now vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

    Andrew Weiss, welcome back to "NewsHour."

    We will get to disinformation in a second, but let's talk about the troops on the border. U.S. officials tell me that those troops are increasing their readiness even in the last few days.

    But does Lavrov's diplomatic reference today provide any kind of off-ramp?

    Andrew Weiss, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: So, the Russian government has been negotiating performatively. The issues that Russia has put on the table are ideas and assurances that it knows it can't get.

    And the West, for its part, is also acting performatively, because we're in a situation similar to where you have a person who's taken hostages inside a bank. You want to keep them talking. You want to keep them on the phone. So, in the West's view, the best outcome here would be endless diplomatic discussions.

    I wouldn't focus on what Sergey Lavrov said. I would focus on Vladimir Putin said. He repeated something today that he said back in December, where he basically said, if all the West is trying to do is draw us into an open-ended conversation that goes nowhere, that's a real problem.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, certainly, we have seen a lot of calls, a lot of visits from Western leaders.

    As far as you can tell, that's more about buying time than actually ongoing negotiations?

  • Andrew Weiss:

    So, I'm all in favor of having as many Western emissaries go into Russia all the time. That would be great. And tomorrow will be the German chancellor, Scholz's turn.

    The issues here is that what Russia wants is, he wants to — sorry — what Putin wants is, he doesn't want an independent, sovereign Ukraine. And what we're seeing through all this discussion about NATO, and why was NATO ever expanded, and is there a threat to Russia, it's a really good reflection of how effective the Russians have been in making us talk about these issues on their terms.

    We haven't been talking about the incredible hardship and pain that Russia has caused through its military activities and other pressure against Ukraine over the last years. We have only been talking about whether this kind of theoretical idea of Ukraine joining the alliance sometime in the far distant future is a threat to Russia.

    That's a framing that's very advantageous for the Russians. And it really sort of completely cancels out the things that Russia has done over the last eight years.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    U.S. officials have been warning about a Russian false flag, essentially a Russian fake story or even an act in Eastern Ukraine that could create the provocation for war.

    And we have highlighted some examples of disinformation that's currently in the Russian media. Are those stories in the Russian media effective at conditioning the Russian public perhaps ahead of war?

  • Andrew Weiss:

    So, I'm concerned that the sort of general argument that people are focused on is the idea that there's this drumbeat in the Russian media pulling the Russian people towards this war frenzy.

    Most average Russians have really tuned out the Ukraine issue, and long ago basically have either decided this is a horrible issue, they'd rather not learn more about it, or they had bought into this Kremlin idea that Russia is being surrounded and victimized and that the U.S. is using countries like Ukraine to put pressure on Russia.

    I have no doubt that, in the event of a provocation, we would see some of these outlandish claims like the ones you mentioned in your report earlier, for example, the idea that Americans are bringing chemical weapons to the Donbass. All those kinds of ideas are completely, transparently false.

    But it doesn't mean the Kremlin won't try to use something equally flimsy to justify military action.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    As we have seen the Kremlin do in the past. Their messages aren't new.

    But what is new, to a certain extent, is the U.S. trying to highlight them, trying to call out these plans for false flags, for example, which the U.S. has called out multiple times. Does that have an impact, calling out what the U.S. says are the Russian plans?

  • Andrew Weiss:

    So, there's no doubt that, by trying to put Vladimir Putin a little bit in the hot seat, he may adjust his plans. He may make some sort of tactical adjustment.

    But Vladimir Putin here is the person who has all the leverage. He's the one who has the military tools. He has the geographical proximity. And he has this kind of personal quest to take over Ukraine.

    So, the United States has only a limited amount of capability here to either slow him down or disrupt what he's doing. It's an admirable effort. But it's really hard to embarrass someone likely Vladimir Putin, who, after all, is responsible for so many problems, whether it was the shoot-down of a civilian jet airliner in 2014, or the use of a military-grade nerve agent to try to assassinate Russia's leading opposition figure, Alexei Navalny, in summer of 2020.

    It is really hard to embarrass the Kremlin. They have a tendency to out-brazen and to basically deny everything. I don't expect that to change in this very serious crisis.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Andrew Weiss, thank you very much.

  • Andrew Weiss:

    Thank you.

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