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Russia tests Biden administration as fears of Ukraine invasion

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, HOST:

President Biden is scheduled to hold a video call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday. The call was announced yesterday by the White House amid growing concern in Washington about a Russian troop buildup along the border with Ukraine. Russia also conducted military exercises in the area last spring. And, of course, in 2014, it invaded the Crimean Peninsula. That's part of Ukraine. Russia later annexed the region. The Biden administration has threatened to impose new economic sanctions against Moscow if it invades Ukraine again.

Heather Conley is senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia and the Arctic at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. We asked her to give us her take on where the U.S.-Russia relationship stands.

HEATHER CONLEY: Well, I mean, the policy that was created in the run-up to the Geneva Summit in June, when President Biden met with with President Putin, in some ways, was a product of the earlier Russian military buildup on Ukraine's border. And President Biden was seeking a stable and predictable relationship, wanting to get some progress on arms control talks, trying to get Russia to reduce the cyberattacks, the ransomware attacks that Russian cyber criminals were exacting on, you know, U.S. infrastructure like the Colonial Pipeline. And so it was an effort to say, look; we want this stable and predictable relationship. We will meet you - we will give Mr. Putin that elevation as a - you know, an equal with President Biden. But Russia must agree to be more stable and predictable.

And while, yes, we've seen a decrease in the ransomware attacks, we've seen some at least early progress in those arms control or strategic stability talks, we have not seen the stable and predictable behavior on Russia's border, particularly with Ukraine. And again, this is what's creating this need for this presidential phone call with Putin to try to manage this unpredictable and unstable behavior.

FOLKENFLIK: How profound is the concern that Russia could invade Ukraine? How likely does it appear?

CONLEY: It is of increasing concern. And what makes this buildup even more concerning is that the spring event was pretty transparent. We could see what was happening. Russia is now moving forces and doing it in a very nontransparent way, moving when the satellites are not going over. The mobilization is more significant. We've just seen reports where medical units and fuel - additional fuel storage is coming closer to the border. This speaks to us that the Russians are readying potentially a rapid strike back into Ukraine. This is why everyone is extremely concerned. And their force mobilization - they're pulling forces from Siberia. So this is very, very significant. And it really - it causes great concern across the national security community here in Washington.

FOLKENFLIK: You know, one of the things Putin has been open about is his nostalgia for the days of the Cold War, where, essentially, Russia stood nose to nose to the Americans - the Soviet Union. These days, you hear a lot of talk about the U.S. entering a kind of Cold War competition with China. What about Russia? Has it succeeded in elevating itself to a lead antagonist to the U.S.? Has it found meaning through conflict?

CONLEY: Well, certainly over the last several weeks, the Biden administration has been focusing on Russia's military buildup in Ukraine. And that obviously takes attention away from focusing on our interests in the Indo-Pacific. So in many ways, yes. This is a power that seeks to distract and pull attraction towards itself.

But I think, David, the greater challenge is that we are seeing increased Sino-Russian coordination and in collaboration. We just saw a week or two ago, the Russian and Chinese ambassadors here in Washington writing a joint op-ed about the Biden administration's summit for democracies that will be held next week. We are seeing increased joint military operations between the Russian and the Chinese military in the Indo-Pacific, as well as in - closer, in the Euro-Atlantic area. Russia is depending more and more on Chinese investment for its energy, as well as selling weapons to China. So - we're seeing cooperation in space.

So this is now becoming where our eyes may be on the challenge that China presents, but increasingly, we are going to have to really understand a growing Russian-Chinese combined challenge to us in two different theaters and the strategic challenge that that presents certainly to the United States and our allies both in Asia and in Europe. So it's - watching both of those adversaries challenge us simultaneously is really a strategic conundrum for the United States.

FOLKENFLIK: We've been hearing from Heather Conley. She's senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia and the Arctic at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Starting next month, she is to be president of the German Marshall Fund of the U.S. Heather Conley, thanks.

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