Why Russia may end its ‘unstable ceasefire’ with Ukraine, and how U.S. politics affects it

American and European officials are growing increasingly alarmed by a Russian military build up of more than 100,000 troops along the border with Ukraine. The region has been a flashpoint since 2014, when Russia invaded and annexed Crimea, and supported separatists in two provinces of eastern Ukraine. John Yang reports on concerns that a full-scale Russian military invasion may be on the horizon.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    American and European officials are growing increasingly alarmed by a Russian military buildup of more than 100,000 troops along the border with Ukraine.

    As John Yang reports, there is concern that a full-scale Russian military invasion could be on the horizon.

  • John Yang:

    Judy, U.S. officials are closely watching that Russian military buildup.

    Today, Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley spoke with his Russian counterpart, Valery Gerasimov. The region has been a flash point since 2014, when Russia invaded and annexed Crimea and supported separatists in two provinces of Eastern Ukraine.

    Since then, there's been fighting between those separatists and the Ukrainian army, and more than $2.5 billion in U.S. security assistance to Ukraine. Now there are reportedly more than 100,000 Russian troops along much of Ukraine's Northern and Eastern borders.

    Andrew Weiss 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.

    Mr. Weiss, thanks so much for joining us.

    What is Vladimir Putin up to, and why is he doing it now?

    Andrew Weiss, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: Ukraine is the single most importance piece of unfinished business in Vladimir Putin's more than two decades as Russia's leader.

    He is the Russian leader who bears, I think, the ignominious distinction of being a person who's lost Ukraine twice. He lost it in 2014. He lost it in 2004. And he's sending a message right now, which I think no one should underestimate, that he is thinking about undoing the unstable cease-fire that's been in place since the war in 2014 and 2015 was at its bloodiest.

    And he seems to smell an opportunity, when the West is divided, when the Biden administration has other priorities, and when Russia has overwhelming military superiority.

  • John Yang:

    Why is Ukraine so important to him?

    You say that he has the distinction of having lost it twice. But there's — there's more. I mean, this has almost an emotional attachment for him, doesn't it?

  • Andrew Weiss:

    Sure thing.

    So, we tend to think of Putin as this great chess master, who's obviously very tactically smart and very cunning. There's also a side of him which is quite emotional. And when it comes to Ukraine, it's an issue that cuts very close to the bone and that he feels is a huge stain on his record.

    Losing Ukraine, which is probably the single most important former component of the former Soviet Union, and seeing Ukraine move decisively Western after — Westward — after the revolution in 2014, he now is saying is a red line for Russia's own security. He's looking at what's happening inside Ukraine, particularly the increase of U.S. and NATO military activities in and around Ukraine, as a threat to Russian security.

    He's saying it's a red line for the first time since this totally avoidable conflict began more than seven-and-a-half years ago.

  • John Yang:

    And you mentioned earlier he looks at the United States, and he seems emboldened. Why is it? What does he see in the United States domestically and in the Biden administration that makes him think this is a good time to do this?

  • Andrew Weiss:

    Vladimir Putin knows that Joe Biden came into office not wanting to have his presidency dominated by dealing with Russia.

    He knows that President Biden's priorities lie elsewhere. He's focused on overcoming the pandemic, getting the U.S. economy back on track and then, when it comes to national security, retooling our national security apparatus to focus on the major threat that we're facing long term, which is China.

    Russia, in some ways, is benefiting from the fact that the Biden administration would be perfectly happy to park the U.S.-Russian relationship and get on with business that it thinks is more important.

    But Putin sees that in some ways as an opportunity. It's a chance to once again force Western leaders into a reactive posture, to make us off-balance, and to basically show, as he's done many times in the past, that he cares about Ukraine much more than we do.

    And he believes that because Russia is a nuclear weapons state, that no one is going to tangle with him or challenge him directly. And if you go back just in recent history, people like former President Obama have said very clearly the United States is not prepared to go to war over Ukraine.

    I don't think anything has changed.

  • John Yang:

    You also mentioned what's going on internally in Ukraine.

    What's — talk about Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and how what's going on there may also be emboldening Putin.

  • Andrew Weiss:

    So, when Zelensky was elected a few years ago, there were a lot of expectation that this was a person who was going to be more Russia-friendly and potentially take away from some of the intense acrimony that's been in place since the revolution in 2014.

    Instead, what we have seen is, Zelensky has sort of squandered what was initially a very strong popular mandate, and he's become more antagonistic towards Russia in ways that definitely irritate Kremlin sensibilities. There are no way a predicate for Russian military action, but they're becoming part of this broader Russian excuse of why something has to change.

    And they point to things like changes to the language law in Ukraine. They point to the increase of Western military support for Ukraine's military, for its security apparatus, and for the increased NATO military presence in and around the Black Sea.

    The Russians are now claiming, in a very theatrical and completely unconvincing way, that President Zelensky is planning to invade Eastern Ukraine, and that they will never allow this to happen. They said things very similar to that in March and April of this year, when there was an earlier war scare. They are putting in place all the pieces to justify military intervention in Ukraine.

  • John Yang:

    The Biden administration says that the United States' commitment to Ukraine is ironclad.

    What does that mean? What, short of war, would the United States do, or what should they do if Russia invades?

  • Andrew Weiss:

    The Biden administration is in a bit of a box right now.

    It is, on the one hand, wanting to send as many signals as it can have support for Ukraine and to bolster multilateral responses to what they are seeing as a credible threat of Russian military intervention sometime in the coming months.

    But, on the other hand, they don't want to do anything that needlessly provokes Russia or gives them an excuse for military action. If they back away from Ukraine, they will be seen as having been too timid. And if they lean in too far, they will be seen as provoking the bear. So they are trying to play this one very straight and very steady.

    As you mentioned earlier, our top military commanders, General Milley and General Gerasimov, spoke earlier today. In the past, during crisis situations, that channel has been the most important one between the two countries. There's expectations that Presidents Biden and Putin will get together in coming days as well.

    There is probably going to be in the coming months a very elevated sense of tension in and around Ukraine. The Russians can turn that level of tension up and down. They will also do things that are going to throw us off-balance.

    And that's, unfortunately, the name of the game for Vladimir Putin.

  • John Yang:

    Andrew Weiss of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, thank you very much.

  • Andrew Weiss:

    Great to be here. Thank you.

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