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Russia seems focused for now on capturing parts of eastern Ukraine


Ukrainians are unwilling to give up people, land or sovereignty. Ukrainians think these things are exactly what Russia wants. The Kremlin indicated in recent days they're focused on, quote, "liberating parts of eastern Ukraine." That's a region where Moscow-backed separatists seized land years ago. Let's talk through this with Andrew Weiss, the vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Welcome.

ANDREW WEISS: Great to be here.

INSKEEP: First, do you believe that Russians have given up on simply seizing the whole country. As they seemed to be trying at the beginning?

WEISS: So I think the Russian announcements always need to be taken with a major lump of salt. At the same time, there's a definite concentration of their military activity on the Donbas. And as the Ukrainian military intelligence chief announced on Sunday, there's an attempt to basically create a North Korea-South Korea formal division of the country. So there are elements of truth in what they're saying, but the maximalist goals probably are intact. The question is - it's more about timing. What's achievable over the short term?

INSKEEP: When you say maximalist goals are intact - meaning Russia would still like to win the whole country if they could manage it. But for the moment, they're focused on the eastern part of it. What case, if any, could Russia make for eating up the eastern part of Ukraine?

WEISS: Well, there's no case to be made. This is a sovereign country. And at the end of the day, the problem for Vladimir Putin is he simply can't accept an independent (unintelligible) on his borders. The immediate challenge for the Ukrainians is that the Russians, by virtue of geographical proximity, by virtue of where their military forces are concentrated, have the ability to cut off Ukrainian troops that are operating in the Donbas. And if that happens, if they're encircled, that's a really dangerous predicament for the Ukrainian side.

INSKEEP: Yeah, but looking at a map - and you can see the distance between Kyiv, the capital, where they're defending, and, of course, the Donbas, which is far to the east. And the idea is, could the Russians get in between them? Let's talk about the population, though. Is there a significant demographic difference or historical difference between the eastern part of the country and the western part?

WEISS: So Ukraine is a mosaic. And Vladimir Putin has tried to portray that as suggesting that it's not a real country and that it's been cobbled together over various decades. I don't think that's true. What you have seen in Ukraine, though, is a transformative moment, and that transformative moment came in 2014 when Russia invaded the country. And so a lot of those geographical or regional divisions were erased by virtue of the unifying presence of a Russian invasion.

So, yes, there are parts of Ukraine in the eastern section where there's a heavy, sort of post-industrial economy. There's a greater level of Russification that occurred in the Soviet Era. But the majority of the population has looked at what Russia has done since 2014 with total horror. And they're the people who, today, are rejecting Russia's claim that Russia should rule that part of the country.

INSKEEP: Are you telling me that if Ukraine ever was not a country, Vladimir Putin has made it a country?

WEISS: Absolutely. So by virtue of what Russia did in 2014 by annexing Crimea and then invading parts of the Donbas and occupying them since 2014, Putin basically changed Ukraine's trajectory, it changed the outlook of its people and it basically made it impossible for a pro-Russian leadership ever to hold sway in Kyiv. And that's the buzz saw that Vladimir Putin walked into on February 24.

INSKEEP: I'm trying to figure out how there can ever be a peace agreement at this point, given that, effectively, there has been a war for about eight years now and Russians are sitting on territory - including Crimea, which they say they've annexed - that they'll never give back. And Ukrainians are saying, we cannot agree to a peace deal that compromises our sovereignty or gives away land.

WEISS: Exactly. So the prospect of peace is, I think, a very dim one at this point. There's a horrible humanitarian tragedy unfolding across Ukraine, and then there's a remarkable story of resistance, both from the Ukrainian military and from average people who've taken up arms to defend their country. I don't see any Ukrainian leader being able to sit at a table across from Vladimir Putin, offer up significant chunks of their territory, give up parts of their sovereignty, and, as Putin wants, basically give away their ability to defend themselves from such an invasion in the future.

INSKEEP: How do you see the future of the war then?

WEISS: I think we're going to see the conflict begin to morph and resemble the Bosnian War of the 1990s, but on a much vaster scale. So the people who are listening to your program today should be prepared for this conflict to go on and, unfortunately, for the humanitarian toll and the suffering of civilians to go - to continue into the coming months, if not years.

INSKEEP: Sorry to hear it, but thanks for the insights, Mr. Weiss.

WEISS: Great to be here.

INSKEEP: Andrew Weiss is vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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