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Why Russian President Vladimir Putin is escalating the threat of war with Ukraine

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

We just heard about fresh intelligence out of the United Kingdom about what they think Russia has planned for Ukraine. So where does that leave talks between the U.S. and Russia? The two parties have been talking on and off for the past seven weeks over the future of Ukraine. These negotiations are focused on how much each side is willing to escalate if they don't get what they want.

Joining me now to tell us about how Russian President Vladimir Putin operates on the international stage is Andrea Kendall-Taylor. She's a former senior intelligence officer, now a fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Welcome to the program.

ANDREA KENDALL-TAYLOR: Thank you for having me, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: I want to start with that communique out of the British Foreign Ministry, which includes this rather explosive claim that President Putin plans to install a pro-Russian leader in Ukraine. Now, it remains unclear if this piece of intelligence is accurate, and Russians are denying its veracity. But what do you make of this development?

KENDALL-TAYLOR: Well, I think it's fair to have some questions about all of the details in the report, but I think the overarching premise of this piece of intelligence makes a lot of sense and is consistent with what I think Russia's looking to accomplish. You know, I think what Russia wants is to have some autonomy for regions in the East that would give Russia a veto over Ukraine's foreign policy. And they're looking for a guarantee that Ukraine will not join NATO.

And I think in order to do those two things, it will likely require toppling the Zelenskyy government and/or securing a demanding military position that can help Russia extract those demands from Kyiv and the United States and NATO. So that playbook to me makes sense. You know, again, fair to have questions about the details of the report, but that the Kremlin would be seeking to topple the government, I think, would be very consistent with - of our understanding of what Russia is looking to accomplish.

MCCAMMON: So let's pull back. Tell us, if you would, about Putin's attitude toward Ukraine. Eight years ago, he invaded the Crimean Peninsula. Now he's amassed 100,000 troops along other parts of the country's border. Why does Putin think Russia has a right to claim Ukraine?

KENDALL-TAYLOR: Well, I mean, Putin has talked about this explicitly, that he views Russians and Ukrainians as the same people. And for Russia, you know, Ukraine is extremely important, both from a sense of their security, but also to establish Russia's standing on the international stage. I think, broadly speaking, Putin really is looking to keep Ukraine in Russia's orbit. After 20 years of him being in power, he's thinking about his legacy, and he wants to be the leader who return Russia to greatness. And to do that, he has to restore Russian influence in Ukraine. And for him, I think it's really personal. Putin, over his 20 years - 22 years now in power, has tried and failed repeatedly to bring Ukraine back into the fold. And I think he senses that now is this - his time to take care of this unfinished business.

MCCAMMON: At the same time, his domestic approval ratings have reportedly declined during the pandemic. You say he's thinking about his legacy. Is Putin weighing what Russians think about him as he considers invading Ukraine?

KENDALL-TAYLOR: I think he is thinking about his legacy, but you have to remember that Putin is working extremely hard to control the narrative of this crisis. And already, public opinion polling shows that many Russians see Ukraine and NATO as responsible for the current tensions. But I think the one thing that he will be attuned to is casualties in a conflict. That's something that has always - he's always been sensitive to - the visions, the pictures of Russians coming home in body bags. And I really think a war with Ukrainian brethren next door may not have widespread popular support. But the problem is, is that Putin has ramped up repression in Russia. He has cracked down on civil society and other freedoms, and it makes it really hard then for Russians to be able to vocalize any discontent. And so I think in many ways, this - it is a gamble for Putin, but my sense is that he feels secure and that he can navigate and manage any kind of discontent or disapproval of this type of conflict.

MCCAMMON: At a White House press conference last week, a reporter asked whether Putin would be likely to invade, and President Biden had a very straightforward answer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: My guess is he will move in. He has to do something.

MCCAMMON: Now, Biden later backed away from that. But does he have a point? After getting into a situation as deeply as he has here, is Putin the type of leader who just doesn't back down?

KENDALL-TAYLOR: Yes, I think - I mean, I think at this point, you know, Putin has pushed. He has laid out for the United States and NATO and Europe a list of very maximalist demands. He's been looking to extract concessions from the West. I think, you know, his preference likely would have been to do this diplomatically, but Putin is ready and fully prepared to use military force to achieve those objectives if he can't do it diplomatically. So it does appear that we are nearing the end of the diplomatic path.

The Biden administration, I think, gets a lot of credit for pushing diplomacy to avert a crisis as far as they possibly could go, but it appears that that's not the path that Putin wants to take. And so he is fully prepared, since he hasn't been able to extract what he wanted diplomatically, to then use military force to go in. And, you know, my best guess is that we are looking at a potential escalation, including an invasion, you know, in the coming three to four weeks.

MCCAMMON: That's Andrea Kendall-Taylor, fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Thank you so much for joining us.

KENDALL-TAYLOR: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.