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Is Russia actually planning to invade Ukraine?


We just heard how U.S. officials assess what a Russian invasion could look like, but are Russian threats to invade part of a strategy? We're joined now by Harun Yilmaz. He's an academic editor with Routledge. His research focuses on Ukraine and Central Asia, and he joins us from London. Thanks so much for being with us.

HARUN YILMAZ: Thank you. It's my pleasure.

SIMON: You wrote an op-ed for Al Jazeera this week essentially expressing skepticism that Russia is going to invade. Tell us why.

YILMAZ: A closer examination of Russia's geopolitical behavior in the past two decades demonstrates that they actually have a clear understanding of the risks on the ground. And a full invasion - it does not fit into Moscow's cost-benefit calculus because they usually pursue a cost-efficient policy when it comes to the use of hard power in geopolitical goals.

SIMON: You believe that we have seen this before in the past few years in other places.

YILMAZ: That's true. For instance, we have seen it in 2008 in Georgia war, which it - Russia intervened on the side of the separatist forces in the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia against the Georgian government. And back then, Russian forces did not really face a formidable adversary and were able to easily defeat the Georgian forces. Then Russian troops crossed into Georgia proper but then halted after 20 kilometers.

Once the limited goal of pushing back Georgian forces from South Ossetia was achieved, Moscow was open to European mediation. In fact, the Russian troops could have completely cut Georgia into two, gain control of the precious oil and gas pipelines from Azerbaijan to Mediterranean coast and paralyze the Georgian economy and political system, yet the regional and global costs would be too high for Russia, so they stopped at limited military operation. We see again this cost calculus and cost-efficient policy in Syria, also in African affairs. So we constantly see this cost-efficient policy, cost-efficient use of hard power in geopolitics. And we see it in Ukraine as well so far.

SIMON: Well, tell us how. What are Russian aims as regards to Ukraine in your judgment?

YILMAZ: The real target is not Ukraine, but Moscow wants to force Western countries to finally sit down for negotiations on issues of European security because since 1991, this is the first time the West has engaged seriously with Russia to discuss European security things in a way to the strategy that they're pursuing. And Moscow wants arrangements to be made on several issues, but these are European security matters, including halting the development of intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Europe and limiting military exercises in close proximity to Russian borders because if you go back a little bit, in October 2018, the Trump administration decided to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which was signed by Reagan and Gorbachev. And that treaty prohibited both parties from possessing, producing or, you know, flight testing intermediate-range nuclear forces. Now we don't have that agreement.

So in other words, Moscow, they understand that Ukraine will not enter NATO, and that's not the issue. In fact, the issue is if NATO enters Ukraine in the form of American missiles or missile defense elements. That's without any international regulations that limits missile deployments in Europe.

SIMON: Let me ask you this finally. At some point, does Vladimir Putin have to use military force if his threats to use military force are going to be taken seriously? I mean, if every time there's a troop deployment people sense it's a bluff, won't they begin to dismiss it?

YILMAZ: I think there are more options. I think Moscow sees this as a long process. And we might be moving from stage one to stage two, and there might be a stage three, but they're not necessarily a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Of course, the recent claims are obviously important, and military analysts work on certain scenarios based on the intelligence they receive, which is natural, which is normal. However, I would say the ongoing process still shows that Moscow pursues a cost-efficient policy when it comes to hard power using geopolitics. And full-scale invasion of Ukraine does not fit into Moscow's cost-benefit calculus. I mean, it's irrational, and it's just - we might be moving from stage one to stage two. So it's not a matter of days or weeks. We might see further stages of a long process and negotiations and some military maneuvers.

SIMON: Harun Yilmaz, academic editor with Routledge, whose research focuses on Ukraine in Central Asia, thank you so much for being with us.

YILMAZ: Thank you. It was a pleasure. Thank you.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.