From The New York Times, I’m Michael Barbaro. This is The Daily.
Today: Russia is making preparations for what many fear may be a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, prompting warnings from the U.S. of serious consequences if it does. I spoke to my colleague, Moscow bureau chief Anton Troianovski, about what Vladimir Putin wants from Ukraine and just how far he may go to get it.
It’s Wednesday, December 8.
Anton, describe the scene right now on the border between Ukraine and Russia. What does it look like? What exactly is happening there?
Well, what you’re seeing on the Russian side of the border within 100 to 200 miles away is that thousands of Russian troops are on the move.
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A top military official says intelligence shows nearly 100,000 Russian troops —
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Russian troops have massed on the border of Ukraine.
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— troops on the border with Ukraine. And that’s prompted fears of an invasion early next year.
We’re seeing a lot of social media footage of tanks and other military equipment on the move, on trains, in some cases, heading west toward the Ukraine border area from as far away as Siberia.
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Tensions between Russia and Ukraine have been building for some time in the wake of —
These satellite images that we’re seeing show deployment areas around Ukraine that were empty as recently as June that are now full of military equipment-like tanks and armored personnel carriers.
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The U.S. called it unusual activity.
And obviously, Russia moves its forces all the time. It does big military exercises, snap military exercises all the time, but what we’re being told is that these military movements are very unusual. Some of them are happening at night and, in other ways, seemingly designed to obfuscate where various units are going. And experts are saying we’re also seeing things like logistics and medical equipment being moved around, stuff that you really would see if there were real preparations being made for large-scale military action.
So what’s happening in Russia is not just the movement of the troops that would perhaps carry out an invasion, but the kind of military personnel and equipment that would be required to deal with the repercussions of something like invading Ukraine?
Yes. So American intelligence officials are seeing intelligence that shows Russia preparing for a military offensive involving an estimated 175,000 troops —
— as soon as early next year.
And Anton, is Ukraine preparing for what certainly looks, from what you just described, as a potential invasion?
They’re in a really tough spot because no matter how much they prepare, their military would be utterly outgunned and outmatched. Ukraine doesn’t have the missile defense and air defense systems that could prevent a huge shock-and-awe campaign at the beginning of Russian military action.
They also don’t know, if and when an attack comes, which direction it might come from, because Russia could attack from any of three directions. So we’re not seeing a big mobilization in Ukraine right now, but our reporting on the ground there does show a grim and determined mood among the military. The soldiers on the border have made it clear that if it comes to it, they will be prepared to do what they can to make this as costly as possible for the other side.
So I guess the question everyone has in this moment is why would Putin want to invade Ukraine right now and touch off what would no doubt be a major conflict, one in which, as you just said, Russia would have many advantages, but would nevertheless end up probably being a very deadly conflict?
So obviously, we don’t yet know whether Putin has made the decision to invade. He’s clearly signaling he’s prepared to use military force. What we do know is that he has been extraordinarily fixated on the issue of Ukraine for years. But I think to really understand it, you have to look at three dates over the last 30 years that really show us why Ukraine matters so much to Putin.
OK. So what’s the first date?
The first one, 1991, almost exactly 30 years ago, the Soviet Union breaks up, and Ukraine becomes an independent country. For people of Putin’s generation, this was an incredibly shocking and even traumatic moment. Not only did they see and experience the collapse of an empire, of the country that they grew up in, that they worked in, that, in Putin’s case, the former K.G.B. officer that they served. But there was also a specific trauma of Ukraine breaking away. Ukraine, of all the former Soviet republics, was probably the one most valuable to Moscow.
It was a matter of history and identity with, in many ways, Russian statehood originating…