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What is the state of Russia's military?


We just heard a bit about U.S. strategy in the event of a potential conflict between Russia and Ukraine, but what do we know now about what Russia has planned? Right now there are over 100,000 Russian troops. And if Russia plans to invade Ukraine, its military is in a stronger state than in recent years. But an attack is not without risk. We asked Dmitry Gorenburg, an expert on Russian security at the nonprofit research and analysis firm CNA, for more insight.

DMITRY GORENBURG: It's been about a 12-year period now where Russia's really been rebuilding its military. And this includes both the development of new and more powerful weapons but also improvements in things like communication and interservice coordination - so the ability of, say, ground forces and air forces to work together - and also mobility - so that ability to move forces from other parts of Russia. Russia's, obviously, a very large country. So moving them from Siberia, as has been done in the last couple of weeks, or from the Central Military District all the way to Ukraine - that's something they've been practicing for the last few years. They've also made a lot of improvements in precision-guided weapons, so the ability to strike targets more accurately is much better now than it was.

SUMMERS: So based on your understanding, what are people anticipating or expecting could happen? To you, does this look like it could be a move against civilians or perhaps in heavily populated cities?

GORENBURG: I think it's more likely that they will try to target Ukrainian military units, in part because there's a perception among Russian leadership that a lot of the population, especially in eastern Ukraine, is positively predisposed towards Russia, and so they would not want to alienate them by indiscriminate attacks on cities and that sort of thing.

SUMMERS: So there are other methods that Russia could turn to aside from a direct military invasion, which we've discussed. What else could we possibly see in the coming days and weeks? What other types of methods of aggression might be used here?

GORENBURG: I think cyberattacks are the most likely, and we've already seen some cyberattacks. Not very significant ones right now, but certainly, I could see the banking system, for example, being disabled, various forms of communication - internet and so forth that could be vulnerable to a Russian cyberattack.

SUMMERS: So let's talk a bit about Ukraine's military. Has it made enhancements of its own?

GORENBURG: Oh, absolutely. If we look at where they were in 2014, 2015, when this war with Russia and with eastern region separatists began, not only was the Ukrainian military in poor shape, they also had a lot of problems with command and control being unclear because the government had just fallen and was - had been replaced by an interim government. So there were there were a lot of uncertainties. And a lot of the fighting in that Donbas region in 2014, 2015 was actually done by volunteer battalions rather than regular Ukrainian military. Now, they've had a lot of training, a lot of experience fighting since then. They've also had some military assistance from the U.S., from Canada, from the U.K., from various NATO countries. So they are better. But the Russian military is also better. So that gap - I'm not sure it's shrunk at all.

SUMMERS: Now, you are a political scientist and researcher. Where are you looking to assess whether an invasion of Ukraine may be imminent? Are there any sort of rhetorical or cultural cues you're keeping an eye on?

GORENBURG: One important thing is to look at the Russian media. What you see a lot of the time is the Russian leadership needs to prepare its own population for any attacks that might happen. If there is going to be an act of war, there's going to be an increase in rhetoric in terms of hostility towards Ukraine. So that's something to watch for.

SUMMERS: As we sit in this sort of uncertain moment, I have to say I have a lot of questions about what this looks like, what it could mean for the people that live in Ukraine. Do you have any sense if there are plans for humanitarian aid, other types of aid, medical aid - any assistance for them?

GORENBURG: You know, this is something that I haven't really seen much in terms of preparations on the Ukrainian side. And as we've seen just in the last day or two in the media, the Ukrainian government is sort of - unlike the U.S. government, is minimizing the chances of an invasion. Not clear exactly why. They may honestly believe that this is a bluff. Or they may be trying to avoid panic among the population. So they haven't done a lot, I don't think, to prepare for the possibility of refugee flows or, you know, those kinds of things that - I think that's something that other countries should be looking at, as well. And I haven't seen a lot of focus on that. I think there's still hope that there's some way to avert, you know, the worst outcomes.

SUMMERS: There is clearly a potential cost here to Russian leader Putin, and there are also risks at play. Can you kind of talk us through what both of those are?

GORENBURG: One thing that is a potential problem is the economic cost. So if the sanctions that are in place against Russia are really serious, this could have a major negative impact on the Russian economy. And that would potentially reduce the Putin regime's popularity among the population. And so that's one risk. Second risk is that the war goes poorly and that there are serious casualties or, if they do occupy Ukraine, that there are - there's a sustained resistance campaign with guerrilla warfare attacks, the possibility of attacks even on Russian soil itself. So those are all costs in terms of where Putin stands vis-a-vis his own population, potentially. And I think that's the main risk.

SUMMERS: That was Dmitry Gorenberg, a senior research scientist from CNA. Thanks so much for being here.

GORENBURG: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF RJD2's "GOING AND GOING. AND GOING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.