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Russia continues a broader approach to its attack against Ukraine

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

As Tim noted, Ukrainians are trying to fight back. But Russia's military capabilities are just so much larger than those of Ukraine. Russia, of course, has been successful in this kind of effort before. In 2014, during the Obama administration, Russia annexed Crimea.

Joining us now is Ben Rhodes, former deputy national security adviser for President Obama. Thanks so much for being with us.

BEN RHODES: Hey, Rachel.

MARTIN: You dealt with the threat of Russian aggression for many years in the White House. And you watched Russia take Crimea in 2014. Was a broader Russian attack on Ukraine predictable?

RHODES: Yeah. It was predictable in a number of ways. I mean, I think the circumstances are dramatically different from 2014. I mean, Crimea is a geographically distinct peninsula with a majority ethnic Russian population. And Russia had, you know, basically only to move in some special forces and mobilize some populations in Crimea. There wasn't much fighting around Crimea back in 2014, Rachel, and there was overwhelming support among the Russian population at that time. When Russia moved into the Donbas, there was a much tougher fight for them in Luhansk and Donetsk, and there was kind of a stalemate that emerged as the U.S. and our allies were also imposing sanctions on Russia at that time. There were concerns that they might try to move further into Ukraine. There were concerns that they might make a move on Kyiv, but that didn't materialize. There really limited their actions to the Donbas at that time.

MARTIN: I want to play a bit of tape for you. I interviewed a former member of Ukraine's parliament ahead of the Russian invasion when I was there reporting. Her name is Oksana Syroyid. She told me Putin was emboldened after taking Crimea and the eastern provinces. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

OKSANA SYROYID: The reason why - Russia and Putin - they feel so comfortable gathering troops around the border - because he was never punished.

MARTIN: For Crimea?

SYROYID: For anything - for Crimea, for Donbas, for Belarus, for Syria, for anything. And impugn evil always returns.

MARTIN: Impugn evil always returns. Why do you think Russia wasn't held accountable in a way that would have prevented something like we're seeing today?

RHODES: Well, you know, the thing is, the capacity to shape Vladimir Putin's decision-making, as we're learning once again - this is not - it's not necessarily in our control - because he was punished. There was a round of - several rounds - of pretty significant sanctions imposed. At that time, sanctions of that scale had never been imposed before. As we are learning now, even with the imposition of these even more severe sanctions, unless you're willing to be in a military confrontation, your tools are economic. They're diplomatic. They're political. And he may not be deterred by those tools. And you know, we saw him invade Georgia in 2008. We've seen him obviously annex Crimea in 2014.

There's been a ramp of escalation on Putin's side. But I think what this scale of escalation from Putin presents to the entire international community is the question of, if you're not willing to go to war with him in these spaces - and we are in NATO of course - so that's the distinction that President Biden has drawn several times in his public comments - what can you do to affect him? And ultimately, you have to affect the sources of support underneath him and around him...

MARTIN: So...

RHODES: ...Because his mind is not one that that, you know, we are currently affecting.

MARTIN: ...Do you think then that these escalating rounds of sanctions now from the U.S. and NATO and EU countries, rather, are going to make a difference here?

RHODES: Not in the short term - you know, like, we have to be honest about this. These sanctions will have a significant hit on the Russian economy over time. In the short term, they may have an impact on Russian markets, on Russian currency. But in terms of Putin's own calculus, he's clearly priced in sanctions. He has enormous reserves that he's stashed away for expressly this purpose. He himself is incredibly personally wealthy and will not be impacted by sanctions. And so sanctions have to be seen as part of a broader strategy to impose a really punishing cost on Putin's inner circle, on key sectors of the Russian economy. And frankly, it may just be that in the long term what's going to have to change here is something inside of Russia itself in terms of its leadership, because the capacity to pull sanctions levers - that man who gave that speech that we all saw from Vladimir Putin - deeply ideological, deeply isolated, a decision-maker of one. And in that circumstance, you know, you can stack sanctions on top of each other. That did not appear to be a man - and what we're seeing unfold before us - does not appear to be a man who is deterred by sanctions.

MARTIN: So you're saying that long-term change in the relationship between the West and Russia is only going to come when Putin goes away? I mean, that's a long-term prospect, if at all. In the meantime, what happens to Ukraine?

RHODES: Well, I will say, you can contain his ambitions - and so fortifying NATO's eastern flank, deployment of additional forces to NATO, the - you know, potentially Finland and Sweden joining NATO. You know, there are ways of, you know, controlling how far he's willing to go here. I'm speaking specifically about Ukraine, where we're already in the middle of a war. And I think that means that, you know, obviously we're in a tragic circumstance, where you simultaneously want to be providing whatever support you can to the Ukrainian people diplomatically, politically, through assistance. They're going to be obviously internally displaced and refugee challenges that will have to be addressed. The Ukrainians - you know, we've been providing them with with weapons and arms, but nowhere near the scale that could give them parity with Russia. So right now, you know, you want to just offer them every ounce of support we can. But if you're not willing to go to war, there's obviously a ceiling on the impact that support can have in the midst of a conflict like this.

MARTIN: So what I hear you saying is that it's almost an inevitability that Russia is going to be able to depose the democratically elected government of Ukraine. And then what, occupy it?

RHODES: Clearly, that's their objective. You know, it's - I would imagine that if they are going to, you know, try to decapitate the democratically elected government of Ukraine, this is not going to be a simple endeavor for them. And this - I think there's an important point here, Rachel. When you look at Crimea or you look at those provinces - those portions of Georgia that Putin has...

MARTIN: Just 30 seconds.

RHODES: ...Annexed, occupied, those are miniscule compared to what he's done in Ukraine. This is an enormous country relative to what he's done. So I think he's going to be facing a long-term potential insurgency that is not going to be easy for him to manage. And I think this could have negative unintended consequences that reverberate back on him as well.

MARTIN: Former deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes - we appreciate your time and context. Thank you.

RHODES: Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIGNAL HILL'S "A SECRET SOCIETY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.