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Ukraine leader says U.S. panic is playing into Russia's strategy

KELSEY SNELL, HOST:

Tensions remain high in Ukraine, where the U.S. warns a buildup of Russian forces has now reached the point where an attack could begin any day. President Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin failed to make any progress to resolve the issue in a phone call yesterday. NPR's Charles Maynes is in Moscow and joins us now. Charles, thanks for being with us.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hi. Good to be with you.

SNELL: So the U.S. is sounding the alarm about an attack. Can you bring us up to speed on the latest?

MAYNES: Yeah, these Russian forces remain massed really around all of Ukraine. To the north, we've got 30,000 Russian troops stationed in Belarus. To the south, mass naval exercises are ongoing in the Black Sea. And there were more reports today of tanks and equipment being - heading into Russia's western border near Ukraine, all of which has the U.S. warning, as you note, that this attack is imminent. Now, Russia's take is a bit different. They call all this talk of an invasion Western hysteria that's now reached its peak.

Oddly enough, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy somewhat agrees, as Zelenskyy was out yesterday saying that these dire warnings were playing into Moscow's hands by sowing panic among the population and hurting Ukraine's economy. Now, that hasn't stopped the U.S. and growing numbers of other countries, the latest being Australia, from taking precautions. They're evacuating embassy staff from Kyiv and telling their citizens, either get out or stay away.

SNELL: So as we noted, Putin and Biden spoke yesterday. They were on the phone for more than an hour. And Biden repeated warnings that Russia would face severe costs for an invasion. So what was the takeaway in Moscow?

MAYNES: You know, we heard from Putin's presidential adviser, who called the talks businesslike. But he said that Putin told Biden the U.S. had not addressed Russian security concerns. This is, of course, a reference to these Russian demands that NATO end its expansion into Eastern Europe and band membership for Ukraine in particular. You know, Putin also warned of the danger of what he called the West militarization of Ukraine. In Russia's version of events, Ukraine may be emboldened by Western arms to try and retake by force these separatist territories held by Russian-backed rebels in the Donbas. That's in east Ukraine and kicking off a wider war. Now, I should add, though, that the Ukrainian government says it has no such plans, and the U.S. has repeatedly warned of a possible Russian false flag operation aimed at justifying conflict.

SNELL: Well, how is this playing with the Russian public?

MAYNES: Yeah, so polls show Russians are as in the dark about what going to happen next as anyone. They're basically split over whether war with Ukraine is even likely. But some interesting voices are speaking out. Mostly notably, a retired colonel general named Leonid Ivashov has accused Putin of driving the country into war and catastrophe. And he's calling for Putin's resignation. Ivashov says he represents retired military brass. That said, Ivashov's gesture hasn't exactly sparked an outpouring of support from others in the military, at least not yet.

SNELL: So what is next diplomatically?

MAYNES: Well, Putin and Biden agreed to stay in touch, and the Kremlin says it will lay out its next move soon. Meanwhile, Biden is going to compare notes with French President Emmanuel Macron, who also spoke with Putin Saturday and has been very active in trying to find a European led solution to the crisis. You know, in some ways, the French assessments have been much more upbeat. You know, they're saying there's no indication yet anyway that Russia is preparing an immediate offensive. And France sees a path to de-escalation through this 2015 French-German brokered peace deal between Russia and Ukraine to end the war in the Donbas. It never took hold, but they have been holding new talks. Another one ended in deadlock in Berlin last week.

Now, related to that, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz comes to Moscow this week. Can he move the needle on that front? We'll see. You know, Germany's role in any possible Western sanctions in particular of interest here, given that Berlin says Russia's massive Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline deal into Germany may be on the chopping block. And that's a deal both sides are eager to preserve if they can.

SNELL: That's NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow. Charles, thanks.

MAYNES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.