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Russia is gathering more than 94,000 troops near Ukraine as fears of an invasion rise

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We begin this hour in Ukraine, where officials are raising alarm over what they describe as a large-scale military offensive from Russia. More than 94,000 Russian troops are gathering near the Ukrainian border. U.S. intelligence warns this could be preparation for a Russian attack on Ukraine. Joining us now is Hanna Shelest, the director of security programs at the nongovernmental think tank known as Ukrainian Prism.

Welcome to the program.

HANNA SHELEST: Good evening.

CORNISH: You're speaking to me from Odessa. Can you describe what the atmosphere is like?

SHELEST: You know, in Ukraine, the atmosphere looks much calmer than probably from outside, especially from transatlantic. One of the reasons is that within these seven years of the conflict, we used to live with the constant threat from the Russian Federation. That's why it is much less panic and quite a sober analysis of the situation. But definitely, it's not the close eyes about what is happening around the borders because this time we have one of the most significant concentration of the forces since 2015.

CORNISH: Russia has dismissed the idea that it would attack Ukraine. And Russian officials have told reporters that this isn't an escalation, that they had the right to move their troops through their territory. What's the read in Ukraine of what's going on?

SHELEST: The problem is that we are currently seeing a lot of forces in the areas where it's not traditional for them in terms of exercises, for example, or we see very heavy weapons plus additional supplies, like the military hospitals, for example, deployment. We also see it at the whole perimeter, including the northern border of Ukraine, what previously was not the case. We usually saw them at the eastern borders and in the Black Sea. But at the same time, what makes us a little bit less nervous that it is a regular tactic of Moscow. Each time they're expecting high-level negotiations, for example, with Washington, or with Brussels, or when they are ready for the Normandy Four negotiations about the conflict, they are raising the stakes. They are bringing more forces, as showing the muscles, what they can to make the pressure and to gain the maybe more beneficial, as they think, negotiable opposition.

CORNISH: Give us some context here. How different is it politically, and maybe even militarily, for Ukraine now compared to 2014? That's when the Russian military annexed Crimea.

SHELEST: The situation is tremendously different. First of all, if we speak from the Ukrainian point of view, we now have the armed forces. In 2014, they'd been almost destroyed due to the corruption, mismanagement and many other reasons. At that time, it was Ukrainian citizens who supported, predominantly, the armed forces. But now we can speak about really powerful armed forces that are still reforming but that has quite good equipment, that has the military experience and that know the adversary and their skills, with the best training from the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom. So now it is definitely not the victim against the adversary. It is already the forces that can oppose and be resilient.

CORNISH: President Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin are set to talk tomorrow via video conference. What do Ukrainians expect from the Biden administration in these talks? Are there concerns that kind of a - grand dealmaking over Ukraine's future?

SHELEST: On the one hand, we are expecting that that phrase that President Biden just said - that nobody would tell him about the red lines - that he would confirm it, that definitely, the Russian Federation will not be able to dictate to the United States about the NATO enlargement or the future security arrangements of the partner countries. What we are afraid a little bit that within the U.S. administration there are two camps - one that are really supporting Ukraine and others that think that because Chinese threat is so serious, and they are afraid of the Chinese-Russian union, that it is possible to agree on something with the Russian Federation and to - I can't say betray, but let's say, to put Ukraine at the second stage. That would be a huge mistake because, first of all, China is not caring that much about Russia, so this unity would never happen so serious. The second is that if you would allow Russia to prolong the conflict just in the middle of Europe, you will have much bigger problems in the next six months than if Moscow and China would have some kind of the dialogue.

CORNISH: Is there real faith that the U.S. will represent the interests of Ukraine in these conversations?

SHELEST: I hope that, first of all, the U.S. will understand that it is not just about Ukraine, but it is already about their own securities and how it touches a lot of other capitals with the interference in elections, with the cyberattacks, with the provocation against their ships and military. For us, we hope that the administration of President Biden will talk, understanding that they are not protecting Ukraine; they are protecting the future of their own security.

CORNISH: That's Hanna Shelest, the director of security programs at the foreign policy council, Ukrainian Prism.

Thank you.

SHELEST: Thank you for invitation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.
Ayen Bior
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.