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What's happening with Russia and Ukraine, and what might come next?

The U.S. has placed 8,500 troops on heightened alert after Russia's buildup on the Ukrainian border.

ST PAUL, Minn. — The United States on Monday placed 8,500 troops on heightened alert to potentially work with NATO forces in Eastern Europe, following Russia's mobilization of more than 100,000 troops around the Ukrainian border. 

It's the latest saga in a long-running, complex dispute between Russia and Ukraine, which declared independence in 1991 after the fall of the Soviet Union. Following a Ukrainian revolution that ousted a pro-Russian government in 2014, Vladimir Putin's forces annexed Crimea and supported pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, in a war that has now lasted almost eight years.

To explain the situation to our viewers, KARE 11 turned to Andrew Latham, a professor of international relations at Macalester College. Here's a transcript of that interview, with only a few minor edits.

KARE 11: Let's start with the news that came out today. What do you make of U.S. troops being put on heightened alert?

LATHAM: Well, there’s a couple of ways to look at it. One of which, that it’s a bit of an overreaction, that nothing has happened that would suggest that there’s a need for that. But on the other hand, it’s prudent, to be ready in case of any contingency, but it also sends a signal, I think, to Moscow, that the United States and presumably at least some of its NATO allies are ready.

KARE 11: From the fall of the Soviet Union, to the revolution, and the annexation of Crimea in 2014... what got us to this point?

LATHAM: Insecurity on the part of the Russians. In the aftermath of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO expanded eastward, first gobbling up the former Warsaw Pact countries, Poland and Czech Republic, etc., but even some of the old republics within the Soviet Union: Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. 

So, the "enemy," the adversary, is creeping closer and closer [to Russia], leaving only Ukraine as a kind of buffer state. And then Ukraine, for its own internal domestic political reasons, began drifting into the Western camp – applying for EU membership, applying for NATO membership, etc. This set off alarm bells back in 2014, which forced Moscow’s hand, I think. They have a major naval base in Crimea... they didn’t want to see that slip into Western hands. That was the proximate cause for the Russians to move in, in 2014. 

It seemed that things have been more or less settled. Russia really wants Ukraine to be neutral, and a divided Ukraine has no prospect of becoming a NATO member or an EU member, but I think the Russians have become concerned in the last year, as Ukraine has become stronger and has begun to make more pro-Western noises, drifting back into the Western camp.

I think the Russians now see: It’s now or never. They have to do something to prevent Ukraine from drifting into the West now, before Ukraine gets too strong and too firmly embedded in the West, four or five or six years in the future. That's the way I would read it.

KARE 11: What is it Putin would gain out of an invasion of Ukraine?

LATHAM: To be clear, "invasion" is the right word, but it’s not as if he’s going to gobble up the whole country, annex it and make it part of the Russian Empire or revive the old Soviet Union. People sometimes think that – but that’s not what’s going on here. He just wants a weak, divided buffer state between Russia and the West, the EU and NATO. 

Think Finland during the Cold War. It was neither in the Eastern camp nor the Western camp. It had been neutralized. That’s really what Putin wants here. And if he can sow discord and disharmony in NATO and the EU at the same time – which, by the way, he is – that’s icing on the cake.

KARE 11: The Biden administration has already taken some steps, but, what are their options here moving forward?

LATHAM: Their options are extremely limited. There is no way in the world that American ground forces, air forces, any military forces, are going to be involved in the defense of Ukraine. There’s no real interest – American interest – at play. It’s too far from home. Russia is right there – and they’re far more resolved. That leaves little more than bluster, making lots of noises, which of course, the U.S. is doing. And also, the threat of economic sanctions, but we played that card already after the 2014 invasion, and Russia somehow seems to have survived those sanctions. Unless we’ve got some really, really serious sanctions in our back pocket, I'm not sure that threat is going to be sufficient to deter Moscow.

KARE 11: Culturally, what does having parts of Ukraine mean to the Russians?

LATHAM: Historically, the birthplace of Russia is in what is now Ukraine, and a large chunk of that territory was part of historical Russia. Stalin, for his own nefarious reasons, redrew the borders in various ways. And then, when the Soviet Union collapsed, the two now-independent countries were stuck with those very artificial borders. There are ethnic Russians [in some parts of the country, including Eastern Ukraine], but I wouldn’t overstate that. 

I don’t think this is a matter of somehow expanding the Russian homeland so all ethnic Russians are returned to the homeland. I think that Russian motives are much more geopolitical and strategic, although that ethnic dimension is certainly at play. In the background, but at play.

KARE 11: In your mind, they're more worried about a democratic and potential NATO member of Ukraine, sitting right next to them?

LATHAM: That's right. And maybe even an example of a Slavic, partly ethnically Russian country that could be a thriving, Western-style democracy, that might send some of the wrong messages to the Russians and Russia proper. But I think the strategic concern is overarching here.

On whether Americans should be concerned...

LATHAM: There is always the possibility of crises spiraling out of control. We saw that in 1914, for example. Nobody really wanted that war but it happened anyway. I'm not suggesting that something on that scale is brewing here, but it's clear both sides are playing kind of a brinkmanship game. There's the prospect of miscalculation and misperception and misunderstanding and that things could get out of hand. I don't think that's what Russia intends. That's not what Germany wants. That is not what the U.S. wants. So, right now, we're in a bit of a poker game, I suppose, is one way of putting it.

What I don’t see, is a full-scale, Russian attack through Ukraine, possibly into the Baltics, possibly into the former Warsaw Pact countries. That, I think, is simply not on the table, if for no other reason than those countries are part of NATO, and if they were to be attacked that would invoke Article 5 that would require some kind of collective response on the part of the NATO member countries. That is not true of Ukraine, which, of course, is not part of NATO.

As far as Russian troop movements, the 80 battalion tactical groups, 100-plus thousand troops – many of whom were there before this crisis (that's their normal home station). If you're going to bluff, it's got to be credible, and I think Putin has gone out of his way to make this bluff – if it is, in fact, a bluff – very, very credible. If the bluff fails, he's in position to launch a short and sharp major strike across the border, which would devastate Ukraine's military, which would completely destabilize the government and undermine the entire political infrastructure of Ukraine. And that will suit Mr. Putin very well.

On where this crisis goes from here... 

One of the things we know from the Napoleonic era and the Second World War, is there's a campaigning season. You cannot conduct armored operations in the spring in that part of the world. You need solid ground, either in the winter or the summer, but not in the fall and certainly not in the spring. So, if something is going to happen, I think it's going to be on that timetable.

And there are options other than a massive armored-led invasion. I noticed the U.S. State Department and president and his spokespeople have been very careful in their language... if any assembled forces cross the border. So, if any sort of formations, battalion tactical groups cross the border, that's one thing. But the Russians, the last time around, infiltrated a lot of out-of-uniform Russian regular forces, with plausible deniability to assist local forces, to do what they wanted to do. So if we're expecting a Blitzkrieg-style attack, like the Second World War, that's on the table, that's a possibility, but another possibility is this hybrid war. Gray zone warfare, "little green men" phenomenon — soldiers in Russian uniforms but with no insignia and then, therefore, plausible deniability. And Russia has a well-developed and fully evolved cyber warfare capability. They're probably well within their ability to shut down the electrical grid in Ukraine, to close down the airports, to undermine the hospital and health care infrastructure, to do a variety of things like that. 

They have a number of instruments at their hand... Potentially, it could look very different from, you know, the Second World War, the way we think of invasions, based probably on too many World War II movies. 

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