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The U.S. has a public strategy about Russia's plans to invade Ukraine

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

So diplomatic efforts continue to try and resolve this crisis in Europe. But here in the U.S., the Pentagon keeps sounding the alarm about a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine. For weeks now, the Biden administration has been revealing details of Russian troop movements, exposing what it said was Moscow's plan to create a fake video of an attack and warning that an invasion could kill thousands of people. Russia has accused the U.S. of conducting, quote, "megaphone diplomacy." However, this morning, President Vladimir Putin's top adviser suggested that Putin should keep talking with the West.

John Herbst is a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and now the senior director of the Atlantic Council's Eurasia Center. He joins me now. Thank you for being here.

JOHN HERBST: Good morning.

MARTIN: We just heard from NPR's Joanna Kakissis that German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is in Kyiv today, Moscow later in the week. She nodded to some of the tension that could exist in a meeting with President Zelenskyy. What do you make of that meeting?

HERBST: Well, I think Ukraine is certainly unhappy with Germany's policy in recent months or, in fact, over the last couple of years, and perhaps especially since Scholz became the chancellor of Germany. It's been very weak in pushing back against Kremlin aggression. And in fact, you know, Scholz even to this day has not said that if the Russians send those massed forces into Ukraine that Nord Stream 2 will stop. Biden said it. Scholz did not disagree, but he has not said it himself.

MARTIN: What do you think Germany, through Olaf Scholz in this moment, is likely to communicate, then, to Zelenskyy?

HERBST: Well, the good news is - I don't want to overstate it. The good news is that Germany understands that it has to present a stronger position more in line with what the United States has laid out and the other allies. So, you know, Scholz, starting with his visit to Washington last week, began to talk about, yes, how we have one approach, how Russia is the aggressor here and how there will be strong sanctions if, in fact, Moscow goes in. That is a good thing - a little bit late, a little bit not strong enough, but still moving in the right direction.

But again, Ukraine is unhappy not just with the German position on Nord Stream 2, but the fact that the Germans were holding up the transfer of arms from other NATO allies. So Germany has some steps to take, I think.

MARTIN: I want to ask what you make of the Biden administration's handling of all of this and the messaging in particular. I mean, Russia's U.N. ambassador says it's megaphone diplomacy. What that alludes to is the very public nature of the U.S. diplomacy on this and the messaging here. How unusual is that?

HERBST: The - what you're referring to as megaphone diplomacy is quite unusual. But I think it's actually a very clever tactic on the part of the White House. I mean, it's clear Moscow has been pursuing this provocation of massing forces on Ukraine's border. Well, they did it first last spring. And now they've done it again since October of last year. And Moscow wants to claim that it has no aggressive intent. But if you listen carefully to what commentators in Moscow are saying, what officials are saying, it is that, well, of course, they're not going to do anything. But if there's a provocation, if those crazy Ukrainians try to take back the territories in eastern Ukraine, which Moscow is currently occupying, then Moscow will respond. So the notion of a, quote-unquote, "Ukrainian provocation" is becoming the pretext for a launch of a major Russian offensive.

MARTIN: But just because the Biden administration, through the Pentagon or the CIA, would announce, hey, our intelligence says Russia is going to create this fake pretext for war, I mean, do you think that would really curtail, prevent Russia from just doing so?

HERBST: It makes the risk for Russia higher. It's not foolproof by any means, but then nothing is foolproof. But as a tactic, I think it makes sense. And, you know, it's clear the administration, as it picks up intelligence, has been putting it out there. So you know - so now we're hearing talk there may be something on the 16th...

MARTIN: Right.

HERBST: ...You know, two days from now. And I think this...

MARTIN: Very specific.

HERBST: Yes. This takes Putin off of his game. And he has to wonder, you know, what else might they know? So to me, this is clever.

MARTIN: Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, has criticized the U.S. for this kind of very public diplomacy, saying that it's just caused panic, which in and of itself has been harmful to Ukraine, especially on the economic front, right?

HERBST: Well, there are at least two perspectives here. And I understand what Zelenskyy is complaining about. There's no doubt that as a result of these very public warnings, there is - there are economic problems. And the Ukrainian currency, the hryvnia, was under great pressure in recent weeks. And the government has probably spent hundreds of millions of dollars defending the hryvnia. So this is a tangible hit the Ukrainians take.

At the same time, the loudness of the administration's statements on a possible Russian - or a likely Russian invasion of Ukraine is designed not just to throw Putin off his game, but also to help persuade reluctant allies and partners in Europe to take strong measures against Moscow if, in fact, the Russians do invade again.

MARTIN: National security adviser Jake Sullivan says the administration is trying to avoid war by releasing this information to the public. Do you think this narrows Putin's options, though, because the world is watching? Or could this strategy backfire and make it harder for him to back down?

HERBST: I don't see this as backfiring. I mean, it's possible that everything the administration is doing will not prove enough to stay Putin's hand. But I don't see this as a problem because despite what some people think, Putin has the ability to retreat on a dime. He could turn around in a second. He controls the major media in Russia. He could explain this to his people. And the whole world will breathe a sigh of relief were that to happen.

MARTIN: Does he have a stake in just keeping the status quo? Does he win by just holding everyone's collective breath over what's going to happen?

HERBST: I think that's a very smart question. Putin, I believe, is truly concerned about what the West, led by the United States, will do if he marches those troops into Ukraine. There will be punishing sanctions. There will be more forces in NATO's east. But if he just keeps his troops there, or if he demobilize and then returns them to the border in six months, he's creating actual harm to the Ukrainian economy, and he pays no price.

MARTIN: John Herbst. He's a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, now the senior director of the Atlantic Council's Eurasia Center. We appreciate your time and perspective, Ambassador. Thank you.

HERBST: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF HANDBOOK'S "SWOON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.