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What more can the U.S. do to counter Russia's threat to Ukraine?


Do you stay, or do you go? That's the question Ukrainians are asking themselves right now as they weigh the chances of another Russian invasion of their country. Irena Pavlenok (ph) is a Ukrainian journalist in Kyiv. She says the people there are prepared to stand up to Russian aggression.

IRENA PAVLENOK: I'm not going to run anywhere. I'm staying in this country whatever happens, and I think that a lot of people would feel just the same.

MARTIN: Ukrainians may have the will to fight Russia, but as of now, they don't have the wherewithal. President Biden told Ukraine's leader yesterday that the U.S. and its NATO allies are ready to respond if Russia invades. But what would or should that look like? We're going to put that question to our next guest. Retired Army Lieutenant General Ben Hodges is the former commander of U.S. forces in Europe, and he joins us now via Skype from Frankfurt, Germany. Thanks so much for being with us.

BEN HODGES: Thank you, Rachel.

MARTIN: From where you sit, General, do you think a Russian invasion of Ukraine is likely, and if so, is it imminent?

HODGES: So unfortunately, I think it's increasingly likely this is a very real threat. I would say that based on the lack of any evidence that the Russians are considering seriously any sort of de-escalation. The language that comes from the Kremlin is not very encouraging. And it really feels like President Putin is - wants to pick a fight. He had - he never expected that NATO would actually respond favorably to his outrageous demands.

MARTIN: You have a unique position. You're the former head of U.S. forces in Europe. You also still live in Europe. You live there in Frankfurt. Do you think there is a divide between how Europeans are assessing this threat and the way the U.S. is portraying it?

HODGES: Well, of course, there are some tensions, although I will say that Secretary Blinken's diplomatic efforts are better than anything I've seen since 1995, in the time of the Dayton Peace Accord, such a comprehensive effort where you get all 30 members of NATO agreeing to reject those demands from the Kremlin. But part of the problem is that we continue to be surprised - that's the collective we. We continue to be surprised by what the Russians are doing because we just can't believe that, in this century, that a European leader would smash borders and European values the way that the Kremlin does. And so that's why you have different responses or approaches to how to deal with this threat.

I think that there's - you know, we're not dealing with Boy Scouts. This guy has used poison to kill his opponents, whether they were in the U.K. or in Germany or in Russia - chased down and murdered somebody in the Tiergarten right in Berlin. So this is who we're dealing with. And I think some leaders still have a hard time getting their head around that that's what we're dealing with.

MARTIN: Is there a risk, though, that by elevating - rhetorically even - the threat from Russia, that you play right into Putin's hands? He keeps denying that he's going to wage any kind of attack, but doesn't he benefit in some way from just the threat as it's being defined by the West?

HODGES: Well, look; that's a great point, and there is that possibility. But I think that he plans to apply maximum pressure for as long as he can. That's why you've got not only over 100,000 troops on Ukraine's border, as well as the tens of thousands of troops that are still in Crimea and Donbas. This is to apply pressure. And he's hoping that at some point there will be a crack in the unity of the West or that the Zelenskyy regime will somehow collapse. I think he would rather avoid a conflict, but he also has to demonstrate something, I believe, for all the effort and expense and all of the talk about the terrible threat that comes from the West.

So there is the risk of this, but I do believe the closer we stick together and show resolve - in fact, use what is called active deterrence, which is demonstrated capability and will, versus passive deterrence, which is based on the threat of punishment after the fact - I think we actually do have a better chance of preventing a conflict.

MARTIN: Well, let me ask about the perception of unity among the U.S. and NATO allies. Germany has been very reluctant to send military aid to Eastern Europe to defend against a potential Russian attack in Ukraine. In fact, the government there got a whole lot of flak for announcing they were going to help, but they were only going to send 5,000 combat helmets to Ukraine. Does Germany's hesitancy make sense to you?

HODGES: I've tried hard to understand it, and it is very frustrating. And you're right; the decision to provide helmets as the only real tangible aid coming from the most powerful country in Europe has been mocked and deservedly so. But I do believe that in Berlin there is a growing recognition that Germany has got to accept responsibility. And, you know, Annalena Baerbock, the foreign minister, she is tough. She speaks very clearly. And I think that now, increasingly, German leadership knows that everything has to be on the table, whether it's Nord Stream 2, other ways of responding, if Russia does launch yet another attack. So I'm not satisfied yet, and I don't think the Biden administration is satisfied yet, but it does feel like Berlin is beginning to realize it has to accept more responsibility here.

MARTIN: Finally, President Biden had this call with Ukraine's President Zelenskyy yesterday - the White House releasing a statement saying the U.S. is going to respond decisively if Russia invades. But he's been firm - no U.S. troops are going into Ukraine. What's the most effective way to help, then, from a distance?

HODGES: Well, I think that it's unfortunate that the president took that off the table right up front. But since then, the decision to put more troops on alert, our contribution to the NATO response force, increasing volume and speed with which we're providing real capability...


HODGES: ...I think these are tangible evidence of support.

MARTIN: We'll have to leave it there. Retired Army Lieutenant General Ben Hodges. Thank you so much for your time.

HODGES: OK. Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.