Russia tells U.S. it isn't planning to invade Ukraine In nearly eight hours of talks with U.S. officials, Russia says it's not planning to attack Ukraine, despite having an estimated 100,000 troops near the border. More talks are expected.

In high-stakes meeting, Russia tells U.S. it isn't planning to invade Ukraine

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The U.S. and Russia are holding talks today in Geneva against the backdrop of 100,000 Russian troops massed near Russia's border with Ukraine. The huge military buildup raises the possibility of yet another Russian invasion of its neighbor. But a ground assault is not the only Russian option. Moscow has carried out cyberattacks against Ukraine in recent years and could do it again. Here to discuss a range of scenarios, we're joined by NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre and cybersecurity correspondent Jenna McLaughlin. Let's start with you, Greg. Where do things stand on possible Russian military invasion of Ukraine?

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Well, right now we're looking at a big week of diplomacy. The U.S. delegation, led by Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, is meeting with the Russians right now in Geneva. And then on Wednesday and Thursday, the U.S. and its European allies are meeting with Russia in an even bigger forum. So it is a very tense moment. And the sides are very far apart. The secretary of state, Tony Blinken, went on the Sunday talk shows and said he really didn't expect a breakthrough when Russia, as he put it, has a gun to the head of Ukraine.

And the Russian side, for its part, was also not optimistic. And this Russian military buildup includes tanks, armored vehicles and artillery, all placed in the snow and the mud of western Russia. So this could be preparation for a major attack. Or, perhaps, it's just brinksmanship by Russian leader Vladimir Putin, seeking to win diplomatic concessions. And, A, we should remember that Russia seized Ukraine's Crimea peninsula back in 2014, still has troops there to this day. And Russia is also supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine. So this Russian threat has to be taken seriously. And that's certainly what Ukraine is doing.

MARTINEZ: And, Greg, ultimately, what does Vladimir Putin want here?

MYRE: Well, in the short term, we don't know. He certainly has this reputation as an unpredictable actor. But in the long term, actually, it is a little clearer. He thinks Ukraine is part of Russia's sphere of influence. And he sees it drifting away, becoming more aligned with the West. And Putin wrote a long essay last year saying that Russia and Ukraine are essentially one country. And in fact, that has been true at certain moments in their thousand-year history. But Ukraine has its own culture and language and identity. And it's been independent now for the last 30 years. I think Putin's biggest fear is that Ukraine becomes a close partner or a member of NATO. And more broadly, Putin wants NATO to pull back from Eastern Europe. And yet, ironically, his actions have really achieved the exact opposite. He is turning many Ukrainians away from Russia.

MARTINEZ: Jenna, I know that the threat of cyberattacks could also be key when it comes to this standoff. Can you tell us more about that?

JENNA MCLAUGHLIN, BYLINE: Sure, A. Yeah. So the way that Greg said that Ukrainians are becoming weary of this conflict that's been going on since 2014, Ukrainians are also really familiar with being the targets of cyberattacks from Russia. Back in 2015, Sandworm, a Russian hacking group, took out the power grid and left many Ukrainians in the dark. For sci-fi fans, it was named for "Dune's" giant tunneling heroes. But then in 2017, the Russians also hit websites, banks, newspapers, electric companies with digital tax using damaging malware called Petya. It was disguised as ransomware, which is a tactic we see a lot these days. But it was actually meant to do lots of damage. And it was launched around Ukraine's Constitution Day for maximum political impact. And Russia's used some of those tactics that they developed in Ukraine, including disinformation on the U.S. and other Western nations during elections.

MARTINEZ: And, Jenna, how is Russia using technology in the current conflict?

MCLAUGHLIN: Yeah. So I spoke to Nolan Petersen about that. He's a former U.S. Air Force Special Operations pilot. And he's been in Kyiv since 2014, reporting on the war, often making trips to the front lines, embedding with Ukrainian troops. He says that Ukrainian troops are really aware of Russia's technical capabilities, including their ability to launch cyberattacks but some other capabilities as well. So that includes use of drones. They can really mess with GPS signals. And they're excellent at tracking radio and cellphone signals. They actually target a lot of their attacks based on those electronic signatures. Here's how Nolan Peterson put it.

NOLAN PETERSON: You don't shine a flashlight on a bright night. In the same way, the Ukrainians don't want to use military radios or cellphones on the front lines.

MCLAUGHLIN: So as a result, Ukrainians have actually been really innovative. They've been going back to analog times, simpler technology or no technology at all. Peterson says that they're using rotary phones, actual people to run messages back from the front lines, as well as some encrypted phone applications when they're near populated towns so that they can blend in with the digital noise of the city.

MARTINEZ: Wow. All right. So Jenna, technology clearly a part of modern warfare. But technically, is a cyberattack an act of war?

MCLAUGHLIN: That's a good question, A. Russia considers cyberattacks part of their hybrid warfare strategy. It's not necessarily about shutting the country down with a cyber strike alone but, you know, messing with Ukraine. And it's also to their advantage that the international community hasn't really come to a consensus about the rules of the road and conflict for digital attacks. Peterson says that the prospect of cyberattacks for Ukrainians is a tool that has a big impact on morale for both civilians and the military alike, in a similar way that flyers used to be dropped from planes to demoralize opposing forces. Peterson had one example of how what used to be analog has really gone digital.

PETERSON: I've had a lot of Ukrainian soldiers tell me that before major attacks, you know, they will receive cellphone text messages or their families will receive emails from the Russian side, threatening them, telling them that they're all going to die and things like that - or telling them that they've been betrayed by their civilian leadership.

MCLAUGHLIN: So these kinds of tactics could be a prelude to escalating attacks, like targeting the power grid, putting further pressure for diplomatic concessions. But at the end of the day, Ukrainians might not be worrying too much about technology if the physical conflict heats up like Greg was talking about.

MARTINEZ: Yeah. Greg, let's take a step back for a second. I mean, with this tension over Ukraine, should we expect, maybe, increased friction on other fronts in the larger U.S.-Russia relationship?

MYRE: Well, the trend lines certainly point in this direction. President Biden and Putin held a summit last June in Geneva, which the site of today's talks. But unlike other previous U.S. presidents, Biden was not really looking for a reset with Russia. He did say he wanted some rules of the road so the countries could work toward a stable and predictable relationship and don't just lurch from crisis to crisis. But even those modest aims haven't succeeded. Putin was dismissive of the things that Biden was mentioning. He said the U.S. needed to get its own house in order. And now here we are just months later with this Russian troop buildup and another crisis facing the two countries.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Greg Myre and Jenna McLaughlin. Thanks, you two.


MYRE: Thank you.

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