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Biden-Putin meeting will delve into whether Russia plans to invade Ukraine

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

You can think of the U.S.-Russia confrontation as a geopolitical game of chicken. Russia has massed troops on the border with Ukraine. It's seen as a clear threat to a U.S. ally. Today, President Biden holds a video call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, warning him not to go too far. NPR's Charles Maynes is covering the story from Moscow. Hey there, Charles.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hi there. Good morning.

INSKEEP: What exactly is Russia doing on the Ukrainian border?

MAYNES: Well, for the past several weeks, U.S. intelligence officials have seen these forces - these Russian forces, an estimated 100,000 troops, or perhaps even more - gathering within striking distance of the Ukrainian border. And that's prompted concerns Russia is about to stage an all-out invasion. Now, Russia insists these troops are on its own territory, that they have no aggressive intentions, and in fact, they say it's Ukraine building up its forces. But there's some recent history here we can't ignore, and that's Russia has seized territory from Ukraine in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea. It's also started a proxy war by backing separatists in east Ukraine later that same year.

INSKEEP: So what does Biden mean to say in this call today?

MAYNES: Well, he's warning the cost of an invasion would be high and reinforcing a message that Secretary of State Antony Blinken gave last week when he said Moscow would face high-impact sanctions from the U.S. and its allies for any military invasion. Now, Biden's team says the president prefers diplomacy. He hopes to rejuvenate a stalled peace agreement between Ukraine and Russia, called the Minsk Accords, that, in the past at least, has quelled the fighting in east Ukraine, however imperfectly.

INSKEEP: Well, that's interesting, but now this leads to another question, which is what really does Vladimir Putin want by massing these troops on the border?

MAYNES: Well, yeah, peace in the Donbas is only part of it. He really - he's worried about Ukraine joining NATO and he's looking for a guarantee from the U.S. and its allies that it's not going to happen. And this is really about Putin trying to renegotiate NATO's march eastward after the fall of the Soviet Union. He's always seen that as a threat to Russia's national security, and in fact, he's called NATO's presence in Ukraine a Kremlin red line. And on that point, I spoke with Tatiana Stanovaya, a Russian analyst with R.Politik, who argues Putin isn't bluffing.

TATIANA STANOVAYA: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: And what Stanovaya here is saying is that Putin believes things have gotten to the point where either the West has to finally take Russia's security concerns seriously or he's ready to go to war.

INSKEEP: So we've heard what Russia is thinking, what Biden is likely to say. What about the country that is at peril here? What do the Ukrainians say?

MAYNES: Well, they argue Ukraine is an independent country - surprise - and that it's up to them whether they want to join NATO or not. But it's important to point out that nobody in NATO is actually talking about Ukraine joining the alliance, at least not in the foreseeable future. Now, as Biden goes into these talks, essentially negotiating on Ukraine's behalf, some are expressing concern that the U.S. might take other priorities into account, might appease Moscow. But I spoke to Vladimir Fesenko, a political analyst based in Kiev. He said he doesn't see how Biden could give Putin what he's demanding, if only for the political optics of it.

VLADIMIR FESENKO: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: So Fesenko says assume for a minute that the West agrees with Putin and acknowledges Ukraine is in Russia's sphere of influence. That would look like total capitulation by Biden. You know, and that just fundamentally underscores just how today's meeting is going to do what both sides say will - a long and difficult exchange between two leaders wanting two very different outcomes.

INSKEEP: NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow, thanks so much.

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

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.