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Stand-off over Ukraine's future: The view from Moscow


The U.S. continues to sound the alarm over the buildup of some 100,000 Russian troops on the border with Ukraine. In yesterday's press conference, President Biden said he expected Russia will make a move on Ukraine, but he warned of harsh sanctions if it does.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We're finding ourselves in a position where I believe you'll see that there will be severe economic consequences.

CHANG: The Russians deny they plan to attack Ukraine, and, as NPR's Charles Maynes reports from Moscow, they see the situation very differently.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Speaking to reporters Thursday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Biden's latest rhetoric was doing little to reduce tensions around Ukraine.


DMITRY PESKOV: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: "Every day we hear threats that Russia will pay a heavy price for some hypothetical action, even from heads of state," said Peskov, who argued such language risked destabilizing an already complicated situation. Indeed, amid soaring tensions with the West, Russia has flipped the script when it comes to Ukraine. This week, Peskov insisted, it is the U.S. and NATO, through arms shipments and aggressive actions, largely fueling a crisis on Russia's western border.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: Russian state propagandists on daily talk shows like Channel 1's "60 Minutes" have scathingly mocked White House claims of an impending Russian attack as delusional, including Biden's slip yesterday that a minor Russian incursion might also mean minor sanctions.


YEVGENY POPOV: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: "So I suppose this means we can take one city or two or three but no more," says host Yevgeny Popov.


VIKTOR LITOVKIN: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: Viktor Litovkin, a military analyst with the state-run TASS news agency, doesn't deny the government's massing of Russian forces near the Ukrainian border. But he argues the deployments are designed to showcase to NATO Russia's ability to mobilize at will, if need be. The troops also, Litovkin argues, serve as a warning to Ukraine, which may be emboldened by American support to retake Russian separatist-backed territories in the Donbass region of the east.

LITOVKIN: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: "If Ukraine tries to retake the Donbass by force, then Russia will have to respond with military action," says Litovkin, who doesn't rule out the Kremlin seizing additional territory. On the political front, Russian diplomats continue to press the West to respond to demands the Kremlin submitted in writing. These include a rollback of NATO's presence in eastern Europe as well as a ban on NATO membership for Ukraine.

The U.S. and allies call both proposals non-starters. Yet on Thursday, Russia's chief negotiator, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, singled out Ukraine's emerging NATO-lite status as driving Russian concerns in the short term.


SERGEI RYABKOV: We see the threat of Ukraine becoming ever more integrated in NATO without even acquiring a formal status of a NATO member state. This is something that goes right to the center of Russia's national security interests.

MAYNES: Andrey Baklitskiy, a senior research fellow at MGIMO University in Moscow, agrees NATO weapons shipments to Ukraine aren't helping. He says the West has to understand Russia's fears. Then there may be room for compromise.

ANDREY BAKLITSKIY: You don't have to maybe accept or implement all the points in the Russian documents, including the biggest ones.

MAYNES: Baklitskiy's advice for the West is to take Russian proposals seriously but not necessarily literally. There's room for maneuver, he argues, in looking beyond Russian demands themselves and instead addressing the core security concerns behind them.

BAKLITSKIY: And maybe going to the concerns themselves and trying to figure out - maybe there are other ways to solve those security concerns which would be different from what Russia proposed.

MAYNES: That will be the challenge facing Secretary of State Antony Blinken when he meets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva tomorrow in hopes of finding an off-ramp.

Charles Maynes, NPR News, Moscow.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOR'S "INTRO - EDAMAME REMIX") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.