MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Pentagon leaders said today they hoped diplomacy could end the possibility of an invasion of Ukraine, but they also cautioned if an invasion does occur, it could be horrific. Here's Joint Chiefs Chairman General Mark Milley.
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MARK MILLEY: If war were to break out on a scale and scope that is possible, the civilian population will suffer immensely.
KELLY: And there is growing concern throughout the U.S. government that some scale of Russian invasion could occur as early as mid-February.
Let's bring in NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Hey, Tom.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.
KELLY: As you prowl the corridors of the Pentagon there, what are people saying? What are you hearing?
BOWMAN: Well, despite what the Pentagon leaders are saying about the possibilities of a diplomatic solution, there's a growing sense that an invasion could occur as early as next month after the Beijing Olympics. Remember, Mary Louise; Putin invaded Crimea right after the Sochi Games in 2014, so officials say an invasion could be contained to maybe the eastern part of the country, the Donbas region. We have seen Russian aggression already over the past number of years.
Others say Russia could maybe grab a land bridge between Donbas and in Crimea. That coastal area would include a couple of key ports and shipyards. But the massive number of Russian forces on three sides of Ukraine now lead officials to believe a much larger-scale invasion that could consume the whole country.
Now, U.S. and NATO's offering weapons to Ukraine, and both the U.S. and NATO are considering deploying troops to Eastern Europe. Right now, 8,500 U.S. troops are on high alert but have not been ordered to deploy.
KELLY: Yeah. Well, any word yet on whether those troops will in fact head to Eastern Europe?
BOWMAN: You know, no details yet. But we're told they could go to the Baltic states, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, also Romania and Poland, shoring up all those NATO members. Now, there are some who say that the deployment of those troops, especially U.S. troops, could lead Putin to justify an invasion. Remember, his main concern is NATO increasingly moving east to his border. That could be a provocation.
General Milley was asked about that and dismissed the notion. Let's listen.
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MILLEY: We certainly have no intent whatsoever that I'm aware of putting on offensive forces to attack Russia, and I don't think that's NATO's intent at all. This is entirely engineered by Russia and President Putin as an overt act of coercion against Ukraine.
BOWMAN: Now, the Pentagon, by the way, doesn't believe Putin has made a decision on whether to invade.
KELLY: And meanwhile, as you mentioned, the Pentagon is hoping diplomacy can work. Where does the diplomacy stand?
BOWMAN: Well, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov today left open the possibility of a way out. He said both sides could discuss ways to place a moratorium on NATO missile deployments in Eastern Europe, curtail military exercises. He called the possibility of some compromise, quote, "a kernel of rationality." Some wonder whether Russia really wants an exit ramp and all of this is just talk and an invasion will happen.
Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, there's growing concern about what to do. I'm told in closed-door meetings, some lawmakers want to put sanctions against Russia in place now, not wait for an invasion. Others say, why send 8,500 U.S. troops? Why not a lot more? One senator, I'm told, suggested - get this - 50,000 U.S. troops to Eastern Europe.
KELLY: Wow. And just real quick, what's the Pentagon assessment of the state of the Ukrainian military?
BOWMAN: Well, they've got a lot better. Since 2014, the Russian invasion of Crimea, they have some capable units but clearly no match for Russia. But if Russia does in fact mount a massive invasion, you could see a large-scale insurgency effort on the part of the Ukrainians.
KELLY: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Thank you, Tom.
BOWMAN: You're welcome.
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