From The New York Times, I’m Michael Barbaro. This is The Daily.
Today: If Russia invades Ukraine, it would be the largest and potentially deadliest military action in Europe since World War II. So why are the U.S. and its European allies so divided over just how seriously to take the threat? I spoke with my colleague, Moscow bureau chief Anton Troianovsky.
It’s Tuesday, February 8.
Anton, this is really starting to feel like the scariest moment for Europe, maybe in decades. There’s talk of a historic potential invasion of Ukraine by Russia and casualty counts that could reach into the tens of thousands. Leaders across Europe are shuttling around the continent, desperately trying to find a diplomatic solution so there’s not an invasion. And so we wanted to check in with you on exactly where everything stands for all the major players — Russia, Ukraine, the United States and Europe. Let’s start with Russia and its troop buildup around Ukraine. What exactly is the state of that at this very moment?
Well, it’s very ominous, and it’s gotten worse since we last spoke. Russia now has more than 110,000 — by some estimates as many as 130,000 — troops encircling Ukraine on three sides.
And the important thing here is not just the number of troops we’re talking about, but the fact that they’re on the move. They’re getting closer to the border. A few weeks ago, we saw a lot of equipment positioned in the area near the border, but not enough personnel to operate all those tanks and artillery systems and rocket launchers. We’re now seeing a lot of those soldiers showing up from all across the country, being flown in, coming in on long trains.
And the latest thing is we’re now seeing these forces that were positioned 100 miles or more away from the border getting closer, setting up these tent camps very close to the border within a few dozen miles in these very makeshift conditions — soft-sided tents in the snow, in the mud. It’s the sorts of conditions that take a toll on morale. They take a toll on military readiness.
And that’s another reason why folks are so concerned right now. This intensity of this buildup, it’s not something that Russia you would think will be able to sustain for more than a few weeks. So we’re getting close to a point where Putin will have to decide whether to use these troops in some kind of military operation or start pulling them back.
What you’re describing sounds like the final stages of preparation for the war — not the initial stages, not the middle stages, but the final stages of what it would take to invade Ukraine.
Yeah. The keyword there is “final.” By some estimates, Russia has 70 percent or so of the forces it would need in place to mount a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. And it could get that final 30 percent in place very quickly by airlifting troops to the border area.
And when you say “full-scale,” you mean invade Ukraine entirely, from border to border, take over the country?
Right. Really, the worst case scenario that people are talking about of Europe’s biggest military invading and taking over Europe’s second biggest country, a country of more than 40 million people.
And just as a reminder, if Putin does invade Ukraine — and with 70 percent of the troops he needs now very close to the Ukrainian border, that seems quite possible — what would be his rationale?
Well, Ukraine has declared a desire and intention to join NATO. Ukraine, of course, is a former member of the Soviet Union. And to Putin, that’s a red line. He describes a NATO-allied Ukraine as an existential threat to Russia’s security. A Ukraine with Western troops in it, with Western military equipment — to Putin and really to the Russian security elite and establishment more broadly, would be a grave threat to Russia’s security.
They see NATO as an anti-Russian alliance, and Ukraine shares an extremely long border with Russia in the densely populated southwest of the country. And what we’re seeing now, this huge troop deployment, one way to read it is Putin saying, “I am drawing this red line.” Putin is communicating to NATO and to the U.S., “Don’t you dare take Ukraine. I’m willing to fight a war over it.” But on the flip side, perhaps if the U.S. and the West were able to provide some kind of guarantee that Ukraine would never join NATO, Putin is signaling, well, then, he might pull back.
Right. You’re saying this massive troop buildup could be, at its core, a negotiating tactic, could be a bluff in which Putin really wants to get assurances that Ukraine will never join NATO. And if he gets those, he could draw down the troops. But from what you’re describing of these troop buildups and how expensive and taxing they are, this would be a very expensive bluff.
Absolutely, a very expensive bluff, a very dangerous bluff, because obviously when you’ve got so many troops concentrated on the border, a lot can go wrong.
But, yeah. That’s how a lot of folks are reading it.
OK. Let’s turn to the United States, which over the past few days has made a series of very scary and very public projections about the costs of a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, if it were to happen. Why don’t you walk us through those.
So what the U.S. has said — and this is an assessment that they shared with Congress last week that our colleagues in Washington reported on — is that if Putin were to go ahead with a full invasion of Ukraine, that would lead to the potential deaths of 25,000 to 50,000 civilians.
Of Ukrainian —
— we assume.
We assume, yes.
That’s a lot of people.
Yes. Ukraine is a country of 44 million people, so yeah. The U.S. forecast also 5,000 to 25,000 deaths among the Ukrainian military, 3,000 to 10,000 deaths among the Russian military, millions of refugees pouring out of Ukraine into countries like Poland that are members of the European Union.
Which would be an enormous level of displacement and incredibly disruptive to Europe.
Absolutely. I mean, overall, what we’re talking about here again, it’s the worst-case scenario. But it really would be the largest war in Europe since World War II.
Wow. And, Anton, does the U.S. say how it came up with these pretty terrifying estimates? Because, of course, we have all learned to be skeptical of government projections in the run-up to any potential conflict over the past decade.
Yeah. So the U.S. says this comes from intelligence sources, that their sources and methods can’t be fully divulged. And Russia has already called these estimates madness and scaremongering, and of course, continues to deny any plans to invade Ukraine. But independent analysts are looking at just commercial satellite imagery and the footage of Russian troop movements you’re increasingly seeing on TikTok and other social media here in Russia, they’re coming to a similar conclusion. Independent analysts are also concerned. And the reality is, yes, if — and it’s a big if — but if there were a full-scale invasion by Russia of Ukraine, there would be a massive amount of human suffering. There’s no doubt about that.
We’ll be right back.
So, Anton, let’s turn to U.S. allies in Europe, where a Russian invasion of Ukraine would hit much closer to home. How are they responding to this buildup of troops on the Ukrainian border and to these dire U.S. projections of casualties and refugees?
So I think the story of what Europe’s done in this crisis so far is a division over what to do and just how serious this threat really is. The United Kingdom has very much adopted the American approach of shouting from the rooftops that this is an extremely dangerous situation, declassifying intelligence about Russian threats to Ukraine. Meanwhile, on the continent, France and Germany have taken a much more cautious approach. France has struck out on its own diplomatic initiative to try to solve this situation peacefully. Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, is in Moscow right now, as I’m speaking to you, at the Kremlin, meeting with Putin.
Germany has been struggling to gain its bearings in foreign policy after the departure of Angela Merkel last year. And Germany, in particular, has come under a fair amount of criticism for not being clear on the kinds of sanctions that would come if Putin were to invade. So one of the important things to keep in mind here is that even as the West tries to project unity, not everyone is on the same page as the U.S. is when it comes to what to do next.
So explain that. Why would a country, especially Germany, which we think of as being the leader of Europe on almost every issue — why would Germany resist being very vocal and forceful about this threat from Russia?
There’s a number of matters at play. First, I think there is real divergence on that question of whether the U.S. approach of really highlighting the threat actually helps or hinders the goal of preventing a military escalation. And the second is Germany is physically much closer to Russia, of course, than the U.S. is. It has much closer economic ties.
As an example, there’s the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, that huge and controversial project to carry Russian gas directly to Germany under the Baltic Sea. Germany’s leaders say it’s an important economic project for their country. So in a sense, there’s a lot more at stake here for Germany and for other countries in Europe.
So Anton, is it safe to say that a country like Germany may, in its heart of hearts, be as alarmed as the U.S. is about Putin — although they may not be saying it, but they might actually feel that — but does not have the luxury of being as aggressive towards Russia as the U.S. does?
Yeah. It’s just such a complicated issue for Germany that, I think, it makes them a lot more cautious.
So how are those European countries viewing America’s approach in this moment? Are they annoyed by it? Do they think it’s counterproductive?
Well, I think there’s been — certainly, in recent weeks, in the last couple of months, there has been a lot of skepticism in Europe over this U.S. approach. There have been critics saying this approach of talking so loudly about the threat and talking about the worst-case scenario so much may, perhaps, only worsen the situation by escalating the rhetoric, escalating the overall diplomatic environment that Putin is looking at as he makes this decision.
But I would also say that in the last week or two, I think you’re starting to see a shift in Europe, where people are recognizing thereto the seriousness of the situation. And I think you’re seeing that this week, not just with Macron’s visit to Moscow but also with Chancellor Olaf Scholz meeting with Biden on Monday in Washington.
So suddenly, European leaders are, you’re suggesting, coming closer to where the U.S. leadership is.
They are, yeah. It’s still — I think the rhetoric is still not as alarmist in the continental European capitals as it is in Washington and in London. But the level of concern there is certainly rising as well.
Finally, we have Ukraine itself. How has its behavior changed over the past few weeks as everything that we have just described has unfolded?
Well, President Zelensky has been very critical too of this U.S. approach. He’s blamed the U.S. for hyping the threat. He’s said that, as far as Ukrainian officials can tell, the level of the threat that Russia poses, which of course, Russia already did invade Ukraine back in 2014 and continues —
— to support pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine. So Zelensky’s take has been this: Let’s not panic. Let’s not hype the situation. We’ve been living and dealing with the threat from Russia for the last eight years, and we’re going to continue to do so.
That seems very counterintuitive to me. I mean, you would think that the leader of a country that’s surrounded on three sides by 110,000 or as many as 130,000 Russian troops would want the world to be banging every pot and pan available and putting a spotlight on the situation and making sure his whole country was on high alert.
Well, President Zelensky of Ukraine is, of course, in an extraordinarily difficult spot. He doesn’t want the Ukrainian population to be in a state of panic. He doesn’t want foreign investors to be pulling out. The Ukrainian economy already has suffered as a result of all this concern. And Zelensky is worried that the U.S., by talking so much about the worst-case scenario, about the dire threat, could actually be making the situation even worse.
Worse for Ukraine?
Worse for Ukraine and perhaps escalating the temperature of this whole thing to the point that it becomes even more dangerous.
Anton, I’m really struck by the fact that, so far, the loudest and most worried voice in all of this is the U.S., even though the U.S. is the furthest away from Ukraine and Russia and seemingly has the least at stake compared with Ukraine and Europe.
Well, that’s a correct observation. But remember that Russia is most fixated on the U.S. in all of this. The Kremlin sees Washington as the entity pulling the strings in Ukraine and across Europe.
So if you’re Putin, you must really like the fact that at this moment, with this military threat, there are these divisions that have been exacerbated and that have emerged between the U.S. and its European allies, between the U.S. —
— and its partners in Ukraine. Putin has already made life harder for the Biden administration in trying to bring the Western alliance back together. And he’s already succeeded in sowing further disruption within Ukraine as well.
You’re saying that is a victory for Putin, no matter what happens, which, Anton, reminds me of what we seem to learn about Putin after he interfered in the 2016 U.S. election. Back then, when we asked our colleagues, what was Putin’s motivation for doing that, they told us that, to a large degree, Putin’s biggest objective always is to sow division and to sow chaos among his adversaries to make them weaker and less stable, which makes Russia stronger by comparison. And it sounds like he’s already accomplished that in a way when it comes to the relationship between the U.S. and Europe — the Western alliance, as you called it — by dividing them over Ukraine in a way that gives Russia the upper hand.
Absolutely. Let’s remember Putin is playing a very weak hand in many ways. His economy is stagnant. The population here in Russia is shrinking. Industry is not very innovative in a number of fields. But with that weak hand, he does thrive on uncertainty, on chaos, as you said. He is willing to take risks and go to lengths in terms of what his military does, what his intelligence services do, that his Western adversaries are not willing to go to. That gives Putin this asymmetric advantage that he, right now, yet again, is taking advantage of.
But that makes me wonder, wouldn’t an actual full-scale invasion of Ukraine potentially take a weak hand and not make it stronger but actually just make it weaker, overextended?
Absolutely. And I think that’s really the crux of why folks in Ukraine and Europe and also here inside Russia, by and large, continue to doubt that Putin would actually go ahead with this full-scale invasion because that would really represent a risk and an extension of what he’s doing that would go far beyond anything he’s done so far. I mean, invading Ukraine would represent a risk orders of magnitude greater than taking Crimea or intervening in Syria or interfering in the U.S. elections. We’re really talking about something on a totally different scale. And really, the question is, has something changed here in Russia? Have things really changed to an extent that Putin would be ready now in 2022 to take such a new level of risk?
Right. To take his regular playbook of sowing chaos and transform it into a playbook of creating the largest land offensive since World War II — it’s a very, very different strategy.
Absolutely. And he certainly does have a military now that’s much more powerful, much more modernized than it was even back in 2014. But still, a lot of people continue to doubt that Putin would be willing to take such a risk.
Well, given all this uncertainty, what do you think of as the date on the calendar when we will really start to know which way this may go — whether this is a very expensive bluff, whether this is about getting the U.S. to focus on Russia and give Putin what he wants, whether there’s going to be any real war or not.
Well, the Western military analysts I talked to say we’re really talking about a matter of weeks. That the kind of force posture that Putin has undertaken here is the kind of thing where he’s going to have a go or no-go moment, a really — a decision point in the coming weeks, in, let’s say, February or March.
One date on the calendar that’s worth pointing out is February 20th. Russia has these massive snap exercises with Belarus that are scheduled to run from February 10th to 20th. Thousands of Russian troops have been shipped all the way across the country from the Far East and Siberia into Belarus to take part in these exercises. And on February the 20th, we’re going to see if those troops go back to their bases or if they stay in Belarus. So that’ll be one thing to look at.
And another thing that happens on February 20th is the Olympics and in Beijing. And of course, the —
— friendship with China has been one big priority for Putin. He even flew to Beijing last week to meet with President Xi Jinping in person and see the opening ceremony of the Olympics. Some people think it’s hard to imagine Putin launching an offensive during the Olympics because it would upstage his friend Xi. And after February 20th, that’ll be another obstacle to an offensive that will be off the table.
So I think, really, even by the end of this month, we’ll have a much better sense of where things are headed.
And whether we’re looking at war or a bluff.
Anton, thank you very much. We appreciate it.
Thank you, Michael.
During a news conference on Monday at the White House, President Biden and the new chancellor of Germany, Olaf Scholz, sought to play down any divisions between the two countries over how to respond to Russia’s buildup of troops around Ukraine.
- archived recording (president joe biden)
If Russia makes a choice to further invade Ukraine, we are jointly ready, and all of NATO is ready.
Nevertheless, points of divergence emerged. Biden said that if Russia invades Ukraine, he would seek to stop development of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline between Russia and Germany, a step that Scholz declined to endorse even when pressed by reporters.
- archived recording (andrea shalal)
Will you commit today to turning off and pulling the plug on Nord Stream 2? You didn’t mention it. You haven’t mentioned it.
- archived recording (chancellor olaf scholz)
We are absolutely united, and we will not taking different steps. We will do the same steps, and they will be very, very hard to Russia, and they should understand.
We’ll be right back.
Here’s what else you need to know today. On Monday, the governors of both New Jersey and Delaware said they would end the requirement that students and teachers wear masks in schools to protect against Covid-19. The governors cited declining rates of infection and growing rates of childhood vaccination. The decisions are the latest sign that elected officials, even in states hardest hit by the pandemic, are encouraging the public to learn to live with the virus. And —
- archived recording (vincent zhou)
Hey, everyone. I have no idea how to start off this video properly, so I’m just going to get started. I have tested positive for Covid-19.
Vincent Zhou, the American figure skater competing at the Olympic Games in Beijing, said that he had tested positive for the coronavirus and would not participate in the men’s singles competition that begins today.
- archived recording (vincent zhou)
It seems pretty unreal that, of all the people, what happened to myself. I have been doing everything in my power to stay free of Covid since the start of the pandemic.
Zhou became the latest Olympic athlete to test positive despite strict health rules put in place by the Chinese government to keep the games Covid-free. Three members of the U.S. bobsledding team have also tested positive.
- archived recording (vincent zhou)
I already lost count of the number of times I’ve cried today.
In an emotional video, Zhou described the pain of learning that he would have to sit out a competition that he had spent years preparing for.
- archived recording (vincent zhou)
I have a feeling that I’m going on for too long, and I should close this out before — before I become even more of an emotional wreck.
Today’s episode was produced by Stella Tan and Robert Jimison, with help from Rachel Quester. It was edited by M.J. Davis Lin, contains original music from Marion Lozano and Dan Powell, and was engineered by Chris Wood. Our theme music is by Jim Brunberg and Ben Landsverk of Wonderly.
That’s it for The Daily. I’m Michael Barbaro. See you tomorrow.