Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, and this is The Takeaway. Tensions at the Russia-Ukraine border continue to run high, and US officials have repeatedly warned that these tensions could escalate into a crisis in the coming days. Embassy staff and diplomat from several countries have begun evacuating from their posts in Ukraine, and US officials and other NATO allies are urging citizens to leave the country. Meanwhile, Ukrainian officials are trying to tent down the panic, calling the evacuations needlessly alarmist. Alex Ward is a national security reporter at Politico. Thanks for joining us, Alex.
Alex Ward: Happy to be here.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It seems like it got a little more tense, a little more anxious over the weekend. What exactly is going on?
Alex Ward: There was intelligence indicating that Russia would attack by February 16th, and that led to quite a flurry of panic, especially in Washington and in European capitals, as they were warning, again, that there would be the largest land war in Europe, possibly since 1945 in under a week's time shortly after the Super Bowl and Valentine's day no less.
That happened, and on top of that, you've seen Russia send more troops to its border with Ukraine, they're roughly at about 100 or so battalion tactical groups, which are made of roughly 800, 900 or so really professional troops, not necessarily conscripts equipped with electronic warfare and missiles and other advanced weaponry. With the diplomacy side of this equation not really seeming to produce anything of substance at the moment, what you were seeing then was this large buildup, this intelligence, plus a sputtering diplomatic effort, and so everyone probably except those in Kyiv in Ukraine seemed really worried about what was going on.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Okay. I have a sense of why this kind of buildup and posturing is valuable to Putin, what it does for him. Help me to understand what it would do for Putin to actually invade. Why would this be in his interest?
Alex Ward: He has been engaged. Russia's been engaged in a diplomatic effort to end the war that he started in 2014 after the seizure of Crimea and in Eastern parts of Ukraine. This is what's known as the Minsk process. The agreement is frankly quite nebulous and not very specific about what is what and who gets what.
This process has really been going on for nearly a decade now, and if you're Putin, you're thinking maybe, and again, it's hard to get inside of his head, nor do I want to, but it's if you're Putin, you're thinking, "Okay, I have tried this diplomatic effort. I desperately want to have control over Eastern Ukraine, and frankly, perhaps not have a government and Kyiv that is more pro-Western and pro-US than I have experienced in my many years of rule."
Plus domestically, we have to consider that he has put his number one political opponent in jail, Alexei Navalny. The price of oil is high, which is good for his economy. He has been isolated because of COVID, so he doesn't really have the flurry of advisors around him perhaps reeling in his worst instincts, and he has a Duma, a parliament that is willing to make him president for life. His domestic position is perhaps stronger than it's been for quite some time despite the ongoing problems in Russia, and you've got at least a trigger, let's say, for him of, "Well, I've got an opportunity here to get the gains that I've want even if I have to take a maximalist position."
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right. We've talked a little bit about the Russian side, Alex. I live in North Carolina, which means waking up every morning to news of who is being deployed from Fort Bragg, just deployed several thousand members of 82nd Airborne to Poland, and I have to say, I was struck listening to how those young service members were talking about why they're going. It was vague and notions of we're going there to reassure our allies, but why are we sending American service members to Eastern Europe right now?
Alex Ward: It's what they would call a assurance and deterrence mission. The assurance is to Eastern European NATO allies who worry that if Russia's appetite gets too strong in Ukraine, it might try to come after our friends and allied nations in NATO, and so sending troops there basically assures them that America's got its back, NATOs behind you, you're feeling good, you're feeling stronger.
For NLECC, there are countries that even in NATO that are not strong enough to repel a Russian attack. While granted, a few thousand American troops also are not enough, if somewhat of a belief that they're a tripwire if Russia were to decide to make a move like that, which would be highly risky to go after a country where American troops are stationed would be an extra provocation that perhaps Putin would not want to go over.
That's the deterrent side of it as well, and also part of the deterrent side is to show that NATO is unified and strong and that it will continue to repel any Russian aggression in that region. That's the general overarching mission. Although I agree, it does seem a bit odd to send troops to countries where the war isn't happening and when the president consistently says that there is zero appetite, and zero desire, and zero interest with the US to send troops to Ukraine actually during the war.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Okay. While the US is sending troops, we have Western European nations that are actually going to Moscow to have conversations with Russian officials, including the German Chancellor, any sense that this might go well?
Alex Ward: Better jaw-jaw than war-war, I think the saying goes, and so might as well have this parade of European leaders and call and go to Moscow and talk to Putin, see if they can find a way forward, continue calling. Boris Johnson, not that long ago, somewhat said along the lines of we're keeping him busy, and him being Putin. We're trying to delay this. The more we're talking, the less likely that there's going to be a war, or at least we can delay one.
This does seem somewhat of a coordinated effort as well to just occupy Putin's calendar that said there are reasons to keep sending a different set of leaders over to him because they can offer slightly different things. The US has its position, France has its position, Germany has its position. On the whole, they are aligned on the grand tenets here, but maybe they can at least-- Putin feels like, "Well, maybe there's an opening because with France, I could get this, or with Germany, I could get that." Then maybe he's more interested in the diplomatic option than the military one. German Chancellor Ola Schultz is in Moscow and hoping that he can make something happen.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Talk to me about the energy markets in Europe right now.
Alex Ward: A little spooked. Prices are higher now, and that's good for Russia and, of course, you have Europeans who are concerned that they're not going to have the energy needs that, well, they need. This is somewhat people have been saying for quite some time. Europe has made its bed here. They've decided to really rely, especially central Europe and Germany, in particular, to rely on Russian energy.
What the US especially is trying to do is have a constellation of allies and partners send energy effectively to Europe to quell those concerns, quell those markets, the US is sending mega tankers. Japan is willing to send LNG. The US is trying to make deals with Middle Eastern partners so they can send their energy to Europe
It's a spooked market, and you've got many people in Europe who try to survive a harsh winter and need this energy just to stay warm at night. Luckily, I guess, "It is February," and so the harshest part of the winter is coming and going. Some Putin's grip on the energy market probably would've been stronger a couple of months ago, but even so, people still have their energy needs and they're not sure if a war breaks out with Russia and Ukraine that they'll have a reliable energy.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Alex Ward is a national security reporter at Politico. Thank you for joining us.
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