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Russia Again Masses Military Presence At Border With Ukraine


Russia recently started sending troops to its border with Ukraine, which has some observers worried that Russia is getting ready to invade Ukraine again. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned the Kremlin on NBC's "Meet The Press" on Sunday. Here's what he said.


ANTONY BLINKEN: President Biden's been very clear about this. If Russia acts recklessly or aggressively, there will be costs. There will be consequences.

KING: NPR's Lucian Kim is following this one from Moscow. Good morning, Lucian.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: Why is Russia amassing a military presence on that border?

KIM: Well, the Ukrainian government says there are 40,000 Russian troops on the border with eastern Ukraine and another 40,000 Russian troops in Crimea, which Russia seized seven years ago. What's interesting is that the Russian government is not denying there's a buildup. The Kremlin says it's nobody's business where Russian troops go within Russia's borders and that Russia doesn't threaten anybody. You know, the fact this is all happening in plain sight makes some analysts think that Russia is not planning an attack but only doing some saber-rattling to intimidate the Ukrainians, and also to send a message to the Biden administration that Russia is still out there and a force it needs to reckon with. Let's remember that for the past seven years, there's been a low-level war in eastern Ukraine between the Ukrainian government and Russian-backed separatists. Now Russia is warning that if Ukraine tries to take back the territory it lost to the separatists, it faces all-out war and even the loss of its statehood. The language being used is very aggressive.

KING: OK. So possibly saber-rattling. But let's spin this one out. What would Vladimir Putin get from intervening in Ukraine?

KIM: (Laughter) Well, there's a lot of speculation about whether Putin really wants an all-out intervention. Putin does have motives to escalate the situation but then to step back at the last moment. An escalation distracts people from things going on inside Russia, like the poor state of the Russian economy or the imprisonment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Noel, the fact we're having this conversation at all and not talking about Navalny is a case in point, right? But there are also analysts who believe Putin may think relations with the West are so bad he has nothing to lose by invading. One thing everybody agrees on is that everything depends on Vladimir Putin alone. Here's political commentator Ivan Yakovina speaking on Ukrainian TV.


IVAN YAKOVINA: (Non-English language spoken).

KIM: He's saying that Putin almost always makes the most irrational decision as long as it strengthens his power. He says he doesn't think Putin has made up his mind yet and that a key date we should watch will be Putin's state of the nation speech next week.

KING: OK. We heard Antony Blinken there. Western countries broadly have been telling Russia to back off. Is there anything else they can really do, though?

KIM: (Laughter) Well, that's the thing. Both the U.S. and NATO have pledged their support for Ukraine. But, of course, Ukraine is not a member of the NATO alliance. So just as in 2014 when Russia first invaded, Russia can be pretty sure that Western countries will not risk going to war with Russia over Ukraine and that he basically has a free hand. The one thing the West can do is impose sanctions that would target Russia's banking sector. That would be a catastrophe for Russia. But many people here think that Putin has already decided those sanctions will come sooner or later anyway.

KING: OK. NPR's Lucian Kim in Moscow. Thanks, Lucian.

KIM: Thanks, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lucian Kim is NPR's international correspondent based in Moscow. He has been reporting on Europe and the former Soviet Union for the past two decades.