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How does the Russia-Ukraine crisis look from Moscow?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And we go next to Moscow, where we found Dmitri Trenin. He is the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center and a frequent guest on this program. Welcome back, sir.

DMITRI TRENIN: Hey. Hi. Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: I want to listen again to Vladimir Putin's fascinating remark where he says invading Ukraine is not something he wants to do, but it's actually an American trap. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Through interpreter) You can drag us into some kind of military conflict, armed conflict - and by using their allies in Europe to impose these hard-line sanctions against us that the United States is talking about.

INSKEEP: Mr. Trenin, I hear that, and I understand him to be saying that maybe the United States wants to make me invade Ukraine. What do you hear in that comment?

TRENIN: Well, I don't hear it exactly that same way. Listen, for a very long time, Russians were concerned - at least they were expressing their concerns - over a potential Ukrainian move to regain control of Donbas on the model of the former Georgian president, Saakashvili...

INSKEEP: Right.

TRENIN: ...In 2008 in South Ossetia. So that's been a perennial concern, if you like, or suspicion on the Russian side. There's nothing new that I've heard in Putin's words here.

INSKEEP: I think when you're - we should just explain for people, you're talking about this region that Russia has assisted in trying to break away from Ukraine. And the Russians are concerned about some Ukrainian move to take it back, which they don't want. Is that right?

TRENIN: Yes. And I would add that recently, about 700,000 residents of that region, Donbas, have gained Russian citizenship. So Russia has an obligation, if you like, to protect its citizens in case of a military conflict.

INSKEEP: Isn't this the very same region where the United States has been warning that Russia would create some kind of pretext, which would give them an excuse to invade?

TRENIN: Well, I think this has been, again, a perennial suspicion on the Western side. So we have suspicions that mirror each other, and we have a situation in which the fog is pretty thick at times. And both sides actually are preparing for the worst.

INSKEEP: Let's turn back to Putin's words yesterday. As you watched and listened to that news conference, did you see any sign that President Putin is looking for a way out, short of war?

TRENIN: Well, first of all, I never thought that Vladimir Putin was preparing for war or preparing to invade, let's put it that way. I think he was using the massing of Russian forces, both in the spring of last year - and that's the - and the end of fall of last year, as diplomatic leverage to engage the United States to talk about Russian security concerns. And I would say he has succeeded in that. The talk has begun.

INSKEEP: Well, that is a very interesting point. Yesterday on this program, Leila Fadel spoke with Linda Thomas-Greenfield. She's the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. And she sounded optimistic about those talks. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We're still pursuing a diplomatic solution to give the Russians an offramp. Our hope is that this will work and that Putin will understand that war and confrontation is not the path that he wants to follow.

INSKEEP: She went on to say that we will give Russia an opportunity to discuss their security concerns, the very thing that you said Putin has wanted all along.

TRENIN: Exactly. And invasion or the threat of an invasion, I think, was the instrument that Vladimir Putin used to jolt the Western leadership - first of all, the U.S. leadership - out of its complacency about European security. That's - that seems clear to me.

INSKEEP: Well, the United States has said there's no way we can promise to never admit Ukraine to NATO, even though NATO seems to have no plans to admit Ukraine to NATO. But they don't want a promise never, ever to do it. But is there room for the U.S. to make some promise short of that, like saying, for example, we're not going to ever put troops in Ukraine or we're not going to put short-range missiles or intermediate-range missiles in Ukraine that could target Moscow? Could the U.S. say something like that and potentially satisfy Putin's concerns?

TRENIN: Well, first of all, I think that both those concerns can be satisfied. The United States will not - and I would repeat, not - admit Ukraine to NATO. Because admitting Ukraine to NATO raises the prospect of a military collision with the other nuclear superpowers. The United States will never - and I would stress, never - do that. And the president of the United States said during this current crisis that no American forces will be sent to Ukraine. That is important. So they will never say that Ukraine will not become a member of NATO. But still, Ukraine will not become a member of NATO as long as Russia would treat that membership or path to that membership as a (unintelligible). The second thing, again, the United States would be foolish, if not worse, to deploy strike weapons in Ukraine because Russia has now the capacity to deploy similar systems...

INSKEEP: About 10 seconds.

TRENIN: ...A short distance from U.S. shores. And that would be something that the United States would want to avoid.

INSKEEP: It sounds like...

TRENIN: So I'm optimistic on both counts.

INSKEEP: You're optimistic on both counts that they can find a way to work that out. Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Center, thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

TRENIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.