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Russia is planning military action toward Ukraine as soon as next year

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Tensions at the Russian-Ukrainian border are growing. The Washington Post is reporting that U.S. intelligence has found evidence that Russia is planning a multi-front offensive as soon as next year. To give us the latest, we're joined by Shane Harris. He covers intelligence and national security for The Washington Post. Welcome.

SHANE HARRIS: Good morning.

RASCOE: According to the intelligence documents you obtained, the potential offensive could involve up to 175,000 troops. What else does U.S. intelligence know about Russia's plans?

HARRIS: Well, they think that they are amassing at about four areas along the borders of Ukraine, and we're talking about areas on the north, in the east and in the south - in Crimea, which, of course, Russia seized from Ukraine back in 2014. They think that the Russian plan would be to call up reservists of about 100,000 personnel, which would kind of bring that overall force to 175,000. U.S. intelligence is also tracking newly arrived tanks and artillery that have arrived in some of these places. And what they're seeing, essentially, is the Russian military apparently kind of pre-positioning these different assets at the border for what looks like a potential invasion, although the U.S. has stressed they don't know for sure that Vladimir Putin has decided to do that, and they're trying very hard to deter him now.

RASCOE: So what are these movements connected to? Is it that Russian President Vladimir Putin - he has demanded a new security pact for Eastern Europe. What is driving this? What is he looking for?

HARRIS: Yeah, this is a piece of it. He is very concerned that Ukraine, which is not a NATO member, appears to be kind of drifting into the NATO orbit, and he wants guarantees from Washington that Ukraine will not join NATO. And he also wants the United States to agree not to conduct certain military activities in and around Ukraine. So on one hand, he sees this as kind of territorial protection. Ukraine is bordering Russia. And, of course, he has long seen as Ukrainian territory being more rightfully Russia's. It's what caused him to invade in 2014.

There's also, I think, a goal here for Vladimir Putin to try and destabilize, frankly, Western alliances. He has NATO on edge right now and a lot of member states, I think, doubting whether or not Europe would actually come militarily to the aid of Ukraine were he to invade. So anything that Putin can, I think, generally do to undermine those European alliances, which he sees as not in his interest, he views as a positive.

RASCOE: So the two presidents, though - Putin and Biden - are holding a virtual meeting this week. What do you expect Biden will tell his Russian counterpart about this situation?

HARRIS: We expect him to give a very forceful warning as, frankly, officials have been giving over the past several weeks that there would be bone-crushing sanctions against Putin that would make it very difficult for him. At the same time, you know, these two leaders are getting together at a point where Russia has demanded certain concessions. One has to wonder if Washington is coming to the table prepared to negotiate over certain elements. Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said on Friday it was not up to Russia to dictate who comes into Ukraine. But Washington is trying to de-escalate here. So Biden will be delivering a forceful message, but he's also going to have to, I think, listen to Putin and try to come to some agreement.

RASCOE: All of this brings back memories of 2014, when Russia invaded southeastern Ukraine and occupied the Crimean Peninsula. How much more serious is the attack that the U.S. believes Russia is currently contemplating?

HARRIS: This would be more serious, and I think most experts believe that the loss of life would be more significant. What we'd be seeing here, too, is an effort by Russia, after having successfully seized this one part of another sovereign country, to then go in and do it again. And so this is really escalatory. So just from a political standpoint as well, it would be very significant because Putin would be proving essentially that he could have done this twice and that while he'll certainly face some political and economic ramifications, that, practically speaking, no one's going to stop his military from doing it.

RASCOE: Shane Harris covers intelligence and national security for The Washington Post. Thank you so much for joining us.

HARRIS: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.