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Russia's brinkmanship over Ukraine appears to have gotten out of control


Let's try to get into the head of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russia has moved troops into position to invade Ukraine. As President Biden tries to deter that move, he said last week, he needs to deter one man.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Nobody else is going to make that decision. No one else is going to impact that decision. He's making that decision. And I suspect it matters which side of the bed he gets up on in the morning.

INSKEEP: So we've called an expert who studies the Russian president. Nina Khrushcheva is a professor of international affairs at the New School in New York. Good morning.


INSKEEP: First, are we asking the right question here? And I say that because we might think of Russia as a state and a system that pursues its interests rationally, the way states do, even if we disagree with their principles. But Biden has a much more personal idea of the leadership. Is this one man's decision?

KHRUSHCHEVA: It is a one man's decision. And Russia is an autocratic state. It has always been - all its decisions has always come from the top. And so it is Vladimir Putin - war or no war that he decides he's going to pursue because in his mind, his relationship with the West, his relationship with Ukraine is in the interests - or the way he sees it, in the interests of the Russian state.

INSKEEP: Does he have reason to be so obsessed with Ukraine?

KHRUSHCHEVA: Well, yes, because all Russian leaders have always been obsessed with Ukraine in - even in the Russian language, it is called the small Russia, Malorossiya - used to be called this way. And it is considered to be part of the, as Putin likes to say, Russian sphere of influence. In fact, in 2008, he said to George Bush, it's not even an actual country. So he is continuing that tradition in a sense. But he's also obsessed with the United States, so more now, it is a battle of wills with the United States.

INSKEEP: Does Putin fear the sanctions and other threats that have been made by the West in an effort to deter him?

KHRUSHCHEVA: I think not - not because they're not going to be crippling. He does understand it, but he doesn't - I mean, and Russia - many other countries really don't respond well to threats. So Russia is not an exception here, and Putin particularly, precisely because he wants to be seen as a big boy in the house, as equal to the United States. He wants equal treatment. And when he's threatened, he says, fine, bring it on because then it's going to be worse for the rest of the world, even if it cripples Russia as well.

INSKEEP: Our correspondent, Charles Maynes in Moscow, had some reporting elsewhere today, indicating that it may be satisfying to the Russian leader simply to be the center of world attention, even if it's in a negative way.

KHRUSHCHEVA: Absolutely. And I think Putin - I mean, he has been shown in 20 years, he's an absolute exhibitionist because he always wants - I mean, one of the reasons he keeps it for so long and doesn't take the troops away from the border, although I don't believe that the full invasion is in his plans, is because look what we're talking about. For three months, we've been talking about Russia, Putin, Russia, Putin, who is Vladimir Putin? And that's something that he cherishes the most.

INSKEEP: Wait a minute. I think we need to go just a little bit of extra time here now, which I'm now signaling to our director because you just said something very important. You studied the psychology of this guy. We're all very tense about this invasion. And you just said, I don't believe the full invasion is in his plans. Of course, you can't know for sure, but give us your reasons. Give us your thinking.

KHRUSHCHEVA: Well, Putin - as much as he's an exhibitionist, he's also a former KGB recruiter. So he does things from the sides. He does - I mean, we talk about - a lot about the hybrid war of - or sort of hybrid influence of Russia. So if he were to invade, it wouldn't be that open. It wouldn't be for everybody to see. It wouldn't be, look at me, I'm sending troops because I want to make a point. So I think it is more of a blackmail brinkmanship. But it's not really for war because if the war is in the plans, it's going to be somewhere else, and we wouldn't know it at the beginning.

INSKEEP: Meaning that if he was going to order an invasion of Ukraine, they would have already done it, as they very abruptly took Crimea once upon a time.

KHRUSHCHEVA: Well, they would have not done it because all of this now was in the open, but they would do something else. So I think this is for show, but one has to be very careful to see where else there would be openings for Putin to go in and meddle elsewhere.

INSKEEP: Nina Khrushcheva, author and professor of international affairs at the New School, thanks for your insights.

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

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