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Would a push by the U.S. military deter Russia from invading Ukraine?


Now, if Russia launched a full-scale invasion - if it did - it would be the largest land war in Europe since World War II. It is a big deal. A lot is at stake. And I, at least, have a lot of questions. So we brought on John Herbst. He was the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 2003 to 2006 and is now the senior director of the Atlantic Council's Eurasia Center. Welcome to the program, sir.

JOHN HERBST: Hi. Happy to be here.

INSKEEP: Greg Myre just said that Vladimir Putin really, really doesn't want more NATO troops near Russia's border. And now President Biden has let it be known he's thinking about doing exactly that. Is that in itself a useful deterrent to Russia?

HERBST: It is. But in fact, it should have been done a month ago. Putin has seized the initiative in this crisis. He's put all those troops on Ukraine's borders. He's the one who's threatening a - to use their language, a military technical solution if his demands are not met. And there's no question that the possibility of a major Russian invasion of Ukraine is on the agenda. And Putin is using that to try and wrest concessions from the United States, from NATO, from Ukraine.

INSKEEP: You pointed out that Putin has already positioned more than 100,000 troops. President Biden himself, at a news conference last week, said this about Putin, quote, "he has to do something." Do you believe that assessment is correct, that President Putin has moved so many forces into position and made so many threats and so much noise that he would have to act now or he would lose face?

HERBST: It was truly unfortunate the things that President Biden said in the press conference. It suggested weakness and inability to deal with the situation. He should have been quiet. Putin does not, quote-unquote, "have to do something." If he wants - he controls the Russian media completely. He can claim that the - he has forced the United States to recognize Russian claims, he's forced the West to recognize Russian claims. And he can therefore send those troops back into their regular barracks. He has full ability to maneuver. And as long as he understands there will be a major Western reaction to his aggression - huge sanctions, permanent basing of NATO forces right up against his border, more weapons to Ukraine, and Ukraine will fight - the chances of him actually going into Ukraine go way down. But we've let Putin dictate the tempo of this crisis. We have been not proactive. We've been reactive. And we have to change that. Well, I hope the leak about moving U.S. forces is not just a leak, but it's going to happen. And again, it should have happened yesterday.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about what Russia might do, granting that they haven't done it yet. You just used the phrase a military technical solution to the problem. What does that mean, Russian tanks and what else?

HERBST: Well, it means the continuation of the various - the hybrid war Russia's currently conducting against Ukraine, meaning cyber-operations, efforts to destabilize parts of the country, efforts to force - to use blackmail, assassination to achieve their ends. That's what we're talking about. But the main thing is sending those troops in a regular, conventional offensive into Ukraine, whether it's to seize the capital of the country, Kyiv, whether it's to take the city of Odessa, whether it's to take the Donbas port of Mariupol - any of those things.

INSKEEP: We are already hearing from our correspondent in Kyiv about reports of internet outages, apparent cyberattacks on Kyiv right now on Ukraine. That's something that's been happening for a long time, hasn't it?

HERBST: Correct. Years. There've been major cyberattacks against Ukraine going back to 2015.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about how strong Ukrainian forces are. Are they prepared to withstand unconventional attacks like that? And are they prepared to withstand conventional attacks, like 100,000 Russian troops across the border?

HERBST: Putin is threatening a conventional offensive because his current hybrid war in Ukraine is a failure. It's been going on since 2014. And he's not persuaded Ukraine to change its foreign policy. That's why he's threatening now sending 100,000 or more troops into Ukraine. So Ukraine could clearly deal with the current level of Russian aggression. If Putin decides to send his large forces into Ukraine, they can probably seize any points in Ukraine they want. But their ability to hold it is a serious question. There will be a war, a partisan war. And there'll be many Russian casualties. And that's a real concern for Putin.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk through that possibility. And again, we're talking about things that haven't happened. But we're trying to game this out.

HERBST: Right.

INSKEEP: The United States, of course, had experience in Iraq and Afghanistan and learned that an occupation is really costly, really hard, takes years, takes a lot of troops. And it may not even work. Russia itself learned that in Afghanistan. Granting Ukraine is different - different people, different terrain - we're still talking about a country of 41 million people. Can you see this, in any way, being a low-cost operation if Russia launched it?

HERBST: No. It will not be a low-cost operation. There will be a fair number of casualties during the conventional military fight. And then there'll be lots of Russian casualties after they think they've won.

INSKEEP: Would there likely be a Ukrainian insurgency against Russian forces if they were to topple the government?

HERBST: Yes. Absolutely. In fact, it's worth recalling that even during the Soviet period, right after World War II, there was a significant Ukrainian insurgency in western Ukraine that went on for years.

INSKEEP: Can you imagine a future circumstance where the Russians install a government that's friendly to them and the United States is supporting such an insurgency?

HERBST: Yes. That would be a huge mistake if that did not happen. It'll be huge policy failure by the United States.

INSKEEP: Here's another question that I have, Ambassador. Russia keeps talking in public about Western hysteria. And we should note that for the record, they keep saying...

HERBST: Right.

INSKEEP: ...They have no intent to invade Ukraine, that they've just been conducting military operations. They've used the word hysteria again and again. This, I presume, is a message that the Russian people are getting, as well as people in the West. And I want to ask about the Russian people. When you go to war, you have to prepare your people for losses if it's going to be a costly war. Do you think the Russian people have been prepared for a war, and do they need to be if Putin is going to go to war?

HERBST: They have been partly (ph) prepared for war because the Russians have been hyping the threat from the United States, from NATO and even from Ukraine for years. But it's also true that poll - numerous polls show the Russian people are really not too keen on fighting this war. And, you know, the casualties that Russia's suffered in its current military operations in Ukraine have been hidden from the Russian people. So this is a problem for Putin.

INSKEEP: Ambassador, we've got about 45 seconds left. One more question. If President Biden called you up and said, OK, I heard you on the radio. You're a critic of my policy so far. What's your advice? What would you tell the president to do now?

HERBST: Well, again, some of the things he's doing is right. It's just late and not strong enough. So by all means, send more weapons to Ukraine now. By all means, get additional U.S. and NATO forces up along Russia's border. And let Ukraine - he should let Russia know that once they send those troops away from Ukraine's borders, we can move our troops back from east of NATO.

INSKEEP: Do you think there's still time, days, weeks, months?

HERBST: Oh, there's certainly time. Putin, again, is afraid of the major sanctions we're threatening. He also has to worry - if he goes into Ukraine, both Finland and Sweden may well choose to join NATO.

INSKEEP: OK. John Herbst - former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine during the Bush administration. He's now at the Atlantic Council. Thank you so much.

HERBST: Thank you. Bye-bye.

(SOUNDBITE OF LONE'S "JADED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.