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Can the Russia-Ukraine crisis still be resolved diplomatically?


Russia has positioned around 100,000 troops near its border with Ukraine. As Michele Kelemen just indicated, Vladimir Putin's government has issued a list of demands that the United States and European allies are highly unlikely to agree to. And President Biden said this week that he expects Putin to send troops over the border. Max Boot is a military historian and authority on armed conflict and joins us to talk about the situation. Good morning.

MAX BOOT: Good morning.

ELLIOTT: As we just heard from Michele, Secretary Blinken is meeting this morning with his Russian counterpart. Do you have hopes that this meeting can produce some common ground? Can this crisis still be resolved diplomatically?

BOOT: I don't have a lot of hope for this meeting. I mean, you saw last week that there were negotiations all last week with Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman in Europe meeting with the Russians and various European envoys meeting with the Russians. And it really produced very little because the Russian demands are ones that the West really cannot meet. Essentially, Russia is asking for Ukraine to be returned to its sphere of influence. Putin is essentially trying to revive the old Soviet empire and to kick NATO out of Eastern Europe. Those are not demands that the U.S. and NATO are going to be able to grant. And so the question is, what is Putin's next move going to be?

ELLIOTT: So what is his next move? And what is he actually trying to gain by invading Ukraine?

BOOT: I think it's pretty clear what he's trying to gain because he has spoken about the collapse of the Soviet Union as the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century. That is what he is seeking to undo. He wants to essentially revive the Soviet empire with himself at its head. And he wants to dominate Ukraine. In fact, he has repeatedly denied that Ukraine is even an actual country. So he doesn't really recognize Ukraine's sovereignty. But that's a general, broad, long-term overarching objective. Nobody really knows what he's going to do in the short term or how far he is willing to take this current crisis, whether he wants to actually invade and occupy all of Ukraine or if there is a military option short of that that is likely to be implemented or if this is all just a bluff designed to get concessions without actually having to go to war. The only person who really knows that is Putin himself.

ELLIOTT: So given that uncertainty, what would you advise the Biden administration to do to deter Russia from an invasion?

BOOT: You know, I think a lot of the things that they're doing are the right things - talking about severe sanctions and severe consequences. President Biden muddied that message a little bit at his press conference by saying that if it were only a minor incursion, that might be a different thing. But I think they've, you know, tried to clean that up. I think we should certainly be doing more to deliver military aid to the Ukrainians in the way that the British government is doing. They've been airlifting anti-armor weapons to Kyiv in the last few days. And I think it's also important for the U.S. and its allies to lay out a clear menu of sanctions right now instead of simply talking vaguely about, there will be severe consequences. Say, these are what the consequences will be - one, two, three, four. And that not only has clear signaling to Russia, but it also locks in the U.S. and its allies so that it'll be less likely that they will equivocate if the worst should happen.

ELLIOTT: So the U.S. and European allies, you know, have been warning time and time again of these crippling sanctions. Do you think that the threat of sanctions is enough to dissuade Putin?

BOOT: So far, it hasn't been. I mean, we imposed sanctions after the 2014 Russian invasion of Ukraine. And here we are again because Putin has survived. You know, the price of oil has gone up. The Russian Treasury is doing fine, even if the ordinary Russian people are not doing so well. So I don't think there's much indication so far that economic sanctions, per se, are enough to dissuade Putin. And I think they have to be - the threats have to be ramped up, including kicking Russia out of the SWIFT system if interbank transfers and going after Putin's own ill-gotten money, which is lodged in the West to one extent or another.

ELLIOTT: We have just a few moments here, but we've had another analyst refer to this moment as something like the Cuban Missile Crisis. Do you agree?

BOOT: It's not a Cuban missile crisis because there is no real threat of a nuclear war between the United States and Russia. But it's still a very dangerous moment and potentially the worst conflict in Europe since 1945.

ELLIOTT: Thank you. Max Boot is a senior fellow in national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Thanks very much.

BOOT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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