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The U.S. warns Russia not to take military action against Ukraine

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

The Biden administration says it's still not sure if Russian President Vladimir Putin is planning military action against Ukraine. Nearly 100,000 Russian troops are amassed at the Ukrainian border. President Biden and Putin spoke for two hours yesterday. Afterwards, national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters at the White House that Putin's intentions are not clear.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAKE SULLIVAN: We still do not believe that President Putin has made a decision. What President Biden did today was lay out very clearly the consequences if he chooses to move.

ELLIOTT: Consequences that would include economic sanctions. We know what the White House thinks, but what about the Kremlin? On the line now from Moscow is Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center and a veteran of the Soviet and Russian armed forces. Good morning.

DMITRI TRENIN: Good morning, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: So what did Vladimir Putin achieve with this call?

TRENIN: Well, I think they had a respectful and substantive conversation. I think in terms of Russian achievements, Mr. Putin may say that the United States president has acknowledged Russian security concerns and has agreed to designate representatives to discuss these concerns with Russian representatives. In other words, just like the United States and Russia are engaged in strategic stability talks and also cybersecurity talks, they might be engaged in European security talks. That's a takeaway.

ELLIOTT: He wanted a conversation on this topic. What did he seek to achieve that he maybe did not get?

TRENIN: Well, I don't think that he had outsized expectations from this call. There was a Russian position aired just before the conversation that Russia needs legally binding security guarantees, including non-expansion of NATO. I don't think they seriously believed that this could be achieved quickly, in particular during a video call with the U.S. president - clearly not. But they outlined what they actually wanted, and they got the attention of the American leader. And hopefully for the Russian side, this will lead to some dialogue on security issues, which right after the end of the Cold War has not been there.

ELLIOTT: You talk about getting the attention of the American leader. Do you think it's possible that Putin was trying to send a message through this military buildup on the border to get a phone call with President Biden?

TRENIN: Well, not to get a phone call in terms of, you know, getting some sort of grace from above, not that kind of thing. Putin doesn't need Biden to, you know, elevate his own status. But what he wanted is to start a diplomatic dialogue on the parameters of European security. As I said before, this dialogue was nonexistent since the end of the Cold War. And for the United States, European security was to be fully assured through NATO and U.S. presence in the area. But that's not the way the Russians see that.

ELLIOTT: Let's talk about how the Russians see what President Biden has been saying, talking about responding with strong economic and other measures if Russia were to invade Ukraine. How seriously do you think Moscow is taking those warnings?

TRENIN: Look; the numbers that have been mentioned in the U.S. media - Russian troops massed along the Ukrainian border - vary between something like 90 and something like 115. Now, I will tell you that this is not a force that is structured for an invasion. The whole thing related to the "discovery", quote-unquote, of that force and of its movements is also very interesting. There were some indications that someone saw something and then someone said that, no, they didn't see anything. So basically, it looks to me like it's more of a public relations campaign, an information campaign. An invasion of Ukraine was not designed to happen right now, and I don't think that an unprovoked invasion is something that Putin has ever considered.

ELLIOTT: Well, that's interesting. We'll continue to watch it. Dmitri Trenin with the Carnegie Moscow Center. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.