Russian President Vladimir Putin’s troops continue to amass at Ukraine’s snowy border. A tense atmosphere permeates the cold. And one question is on many minds: Will Russia invade again?
Alexis Mrachek, research associate for Russia and Eurasia at The Heritage Foundation, says she thinks it’s quite possible. (The Daily Signal is Heritage’s multimedia news organization.)
“I think in looking at a potential second invasion of Ukraine versus not another invasion, I think it’s more likely that Russia would invade Ukraine,” Mrachek explains. “I think it is more likely just looking at the tensions building up, and Russia is now demanding that NATO retract its pledge to admit Ukraine and Georgia one day.”
“And so Russia and the U.S. and Western players keep going back and forth,” she says. “It seems more likely that Russia would invade.”
Mrachek joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to detail the history of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, lay out the consequences of another Russian invasion, and explain how America and the world should respond to Russian aggression.
We also cover these stories:
- The House votes to hold former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows in contempt of Congress.
- Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., says she supports expanding the Supreme Court from the current nine justices.
- Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, introduces a bill targeting critical race theory in K-12 classrooms.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript.
Doug Blair: Our guest today is Alexis Mrachek, research associate for Russia and Eurasia at The Heritage Foundation. Alexis, welcome to the show.
Alexis Mrachek: Thanks for having me on.
Blair: Of course. Let’s talk about something that’s in the news a little bit recently: Russia and Ukraine. Russia has started to increase the number of troops stationed on the Ukrainian border. Can you break down for our listeners the most recent developments?
Mrachek: What has been happening over the past few weeks is that Russia has been increasing its troop numbers along the Ukrainian border. And this has actually been going on most of this year. Beginning in April, Russia stationed about 100,000 Russian troops along Ukraine’s eastern border, and then removed only a few thousand.
And then over time, there wasn’t much in the news but Russia kept troops and equipment there. And now it’s building its numbers back up. And currently its numbers sit at around 95,000 and they could increase to 175,000 within the next month or two, which is extremely alarming.
Blair: So why does Russia claim it needs to have these troops? How is Russia justifying these troops at the border?
Mrachek: Russia is justifying these troops at the border because it, I think, feels very threatened by the NATO alliance because in 2008, NATO promised Ukraine future NATO membership. Of course, this hasn’t been a recent issue. It was promised NATO membership in 2008, but the fact of it actually getting membership has not come up recently.
So it seems like Russia is still hiding a little bit of its intentions. But I know that it has to do something with that, and Ukraine does border some NATO members. This is also part of it. And I think also though that, zooming out, this is a way for Putin to test President Biden, to see how he will react, to see if he will be very tough on Russia. And just to kind of see, because this is still Biden’s first year in office. So he wants to see how this plays out.
Blair: In the past, you’ve said, Ukraine was considered for NATO membership, but it’s not been an issue for a little while. Is Russia then just sort of using this as an excuse … or is there discussion maybe recently about putting Ukraine into NATO?
Mrachek: I would say it’s probably the first option. It’s more of an excuse because, I mean, it doesn’t seem like President Biden wants to push NATO to admit Ukraine anytime soon. Because President Biden has explicitly stated that there are corruption issues in Ukraine, and Ukraine needs to work on its reforms.
And of course there’s still a war that’s going on in eastern Ukraine. We can’t forget that. That’s been going on for seven and a half years-plus now, as well as Russia’s occupation of the Crimean peninsula. And so I think Russia is … just using the excuse of future NATO membership as a reason for this troop buildup and potential second invasion of Ukraine.
Blair: The second thing I wanted to mention is you said that this was a test for President Biden. Is this a test that you would say President Biden is maybe passing or failing?
Mrachek: I would say personally that President Biden is failing this test. He, so far in his presidency, has not been as tough on Russia as he needs to be. He has not been a world leader. He’s been leading from behind, which does not make sense because when you’re a leader you’re leading from the front.
He has imposed some sanctions on Russia and done a few other actions, and he’s met with Putin a couple of times. But overall he is not as tough on Putin as needs to be, and Putin views Biden as a weak presidential leader. Putin is very into the strongman image and he likes to play off other strongman images. And I think that Putin is honestly taking advantage of President Biden and the United States right now.
Blair: Given that we have this massive buildup of troops at the Ukrainian border, the immediate assumption would be that the Russians are preparing to invade. In your estimation, is this a likely result, that there will be a full-scale invasion of Ukraine?
Mrachek: In looking at a potential second invasion of Ukraine versus not another invasion, I think it’s more likely that Russia would invade Ukraine. I think we could potentially see this maybe in late January or in February.
Of course, I hope that Russia does not do this. But I think it is more likely, just looking at the tensions building up. And Russia is now demanding that NATO retract its pledge to admit Ukraine and Georgia one day. And so Russia and the U.S. and Western players keep going back and forth. And … it seems more likely that Russia would invade.
Blair: What would the objective be? Would this be similar to what we saw back in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea, or would this be a full takeover of the country to install a puppet government? What is the end goal here?
Mrachek: To be honest, I’m not sure except that I know that Putin has imperial ambitions and he acts as a czar in a way. And he wants to expand Russia’s territory because Ukraine was once part of the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union. And I think Putin would love to see Ukraine as part of Russia one day.
If Russia were to invade again, I don’t think that the whole country of Ukraine would be taken over. But I do think Ukraine would have to come back with a lot of military force against Russia, and that it would be a full-blown war.
I do think that it would be a lot different from what happened in 2014 because the Ukraine today is not the same as it was in 2014. It just acts a lot differently. It’s military is much more prepared now. It has more resources. The U.S. has been giving financial assistance to its military the past several years. It’s sold Javelin anti-missile weapons to Ukraine. And so it would be a different situation than what happened in 2014.
Blair: Why Ukraine? Why not one of the other countries that used to be in the Soviet sphere of influence? You’ve mentioned that Putin has sort of czarist ambitions or Soviet ambitions, but why specifically Ukraine?
Mrachek: I would say that Russia is targeting Ukraine because Ukraine has proven that it is a democratic nation and it’s a lot more open to Western ideals and it wants to join the West. It of course would love to join NATO one day. And just the way that Ukraine operates with its government and just the various … ways that it operates. It favors its people, the people vote.
Of course, there’s still some corruption in the country, but it’s gotten a lot better over time and really improved. And I think Putin feels threatened by this, honestly. And he does not want to see the same situation happen in his country, because that would mean that he would lose some power and he would lose his strongman image, which he greatly treasures.
Blair: Let’s say that there is a invasion of Ukraine. There is a full-fledged war between Ukraine and Russia. In your opinion, would Ukraine be able to possibly regain the territory that it lost in Crimea if this was to be a thing?
Mrachek: I think it would be more likely for it to gain the Donbas [region] back rather than Crimea. The whole Crimean peninsula has been taken over completely since 2014. I mean, it’s very hard to get in there for, even for Ukrainian citizens who used to live there, who still have family there. I believe they still have to have a Russian passport to get into that area. …
But the Donbas, the eastern region of Ukraine, I think that part is still part of Ukraine. And … there is trench warfare going on there. I think it would be more likely for Ukraine to gain that back than Crimea. It’s still unlikely that the Donbas situation would be resolved anytime soon.
Blair: Interesting. One of the things that’s struck me, I’ve had this conversation with a bunch of different people about what the Ukrainian people want. Certain people have said the Ukrainian people might prefer to be back under Russian control, or Soviet control, or something similar to how it used to be in the past. Is there any truth to that narrative?
Mrachek: I would say maybe there’s a small percentage of Ukrainians who would like to be back under Russian rule. Perhaps this is part of the older generation who are used to living under the Soviet Union and … would be fine with that being the case again. I think that would give them a false sense of security, though, just because they feel like the government would be in control and it would quote, unquote provide all their needs and such.
But it’s been proven, obviously, that communism doesn’t work. And I know truly that they would not like to be standing in lines again for food and have there be all these shortages. And so, yeah, maybe a small percentage. But of all the Ukrainians I’ve talked to and the vast majority—I’ve talked with people who work in think tanks within the government there, also citizens I keep up with there on the ground. They want Ukraine to be its own nation, its [own] independent nation apart from Russia, and see hope for Ukraine’s future.
Blair: Ukraine wants to be more democratic. It wants to be more independent, probably more aligned with the West than with the former Soviet Union. Obviously, America would much rather that Ukraine was its own independent country. How have our allies responded … to Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine?
Mrachek: I would say NATO has come to Ukraine’s defense more in speech rather than in practicality terms. And then I would say the E.U. maybe has been a little bit weaker than NATO regarding Ukraine. But I would say the NATO members bordering Ukraine have come to Ukraine’s defense and I’m sure—I don’t know I guess the full detail of it, but I’m sure that they help with Ukraine’s intelligence and their security against Russia and such. Western nations, though, on the whole have been very supportive of Ukraine over the last seven and a half years or so.
Blair: One of the things that has come to Americans’ attention is that President Biden announced earlier in December that the United States would not send troops unilaterally to defend Ukraine against Russia. Is that a proper response from America to the situation?
Mrachek: To me, this is kind of a tertiary issue because that issue wasn’t really on the ground and then somehow it came up in the news. And so I guess President Biden felt the need to address it. But Ukraine, I think, could fully defend itself against a Russian invasion. I don’t think that US troops would necessarily be needed on the ground there.
I think it would be more useful for the U.S. military to provide training to the Ukrainian military, to provide weaponry, to provide financial assistance for its military [rather] than necessarily providing troops on the ground. Because Ukraine is a sovereign nation and the U.S. does want to support its territorial integrity, of course, and wants to help protect it. But I don’t think that troops are needed on the ground there.
Blair: It’s sort of distracting from the main issue of, well, Ukraine can defend itself. We should support them, but not with troops.
Mrachek: Exactly. I totally agree.
Blair: OK. As America begins to pivot toward other foes, namely China, Iran, some of these other places that are our enemy in the modern age … , how much of our resources should we continue to focus toward Russia, especially given the situation in Ukraine?
Mrachek: I would say that China would be the number one threat against the United States, but Russia’s definitely still in the number two spot. We cannot forget that Russia is a threat.
So I think that President Biden needs to take the Russian threat more seriously, to be honest, and not just focus a lot of his attention on China. I think that we need to still make Ukraine a huge priority because it does border these NATO members, these allies of the United States. It is right there in the thick of it. And we need Ukraine, we need to be able to work with their intelligence. And so we need to work with them.
Just zooming out again, we can’t forget that Russia is a threat and it needs to be addressed. And we can’t be just showing weakness regarding Russia.
Blair: Why is Russia still a threat? I know a lot of people focus on China, but what about Russia still makes it a threat?
Mrachek: It’s a threat in multiple ways. I would say particularly regarding hybrid warfare. So Russian disinformation is a threat, Russian propaganda. It has influence in our elections. The intelligence community in the United States has proven this.
Of course, it doesn’t pose a direct military threat to us, but because we are part of the NATO alliance, it does physically threaten some of the NATO allies, such as the Baltic states. A NATO partner but not a member would be the republic of Georgia and the South Caucasus region. Twenty percent of their territory is still occupied by Russia. And so Russia poses a threat in multiple ways.
Blair: One of the things that I also wanted to ask you about is in response to these ongoing problems in Ukraine with the Russian troops. President Biden took a virtual call with Vladimir Putin, then released a readout of the call. And that readout stated the U.S. and our allies would respond with strong economic and other measures in the event of military escalation. Did that readout give you any indication of how America is going to respond if things get worse?
Mrachek: If things escalate, I think that the United States would impose sanctions. To be honest, I’m not sure what else we could [use as a] sanction on Russia, because we already have tons of sanctions in place. I don’t think that’s necessarily the most effective way to respond in this case. But that has been what President Biden has threatened most, is economic sanctions.
Another thing could be selling weapons to Ukraine. It could be financial assistance. It could be the U.S. military providing training to Ukrainian troops. But it’s unsure exactly what those quote, unquote other measures mean that President Biden was referring to in the readout of that call.
Blair: Given that we discussed what the American response should be, not necessarily troops on the ground but economic support and weaponry support. And we’ve discussed how maybe NATO should be responding and that Europe is not responding as well as they should be. What does a unified global response look like to Russian aggression in Ukraine?
Mrachek: I would say it would be great if the E.U. and NATO allies and the United States could provide economic assistance to Ukraine, provide help with intelligence. I’m not sure all the ways that it could help exactly. But it’d be great if we could come as a united front to support Ukraine, because Ukraine deserves our help. It needs our help. And we can’t just let it [go] to the wolves, which would be Russia in this case.
Blair: As we wrap up this interview, I wanted to give you this opportunity: If our listeners want to learn more about this topic, where do you recommend that they go?
Mrachek: I would recommend going to heritage.org and going to my personal page, which would be Alexis Mrachek. And I have some publications there focused on Ukraine. I would also recommend going to Luke Coffey’s page on heritage.org. He also has many publications. And then you could also go to our Twitter profiles because we’re keeping up with these issues, particularly on Twitter, and seeing the breaking news come out on there.
Blair: Excellent. That was Alexis Mrachek, research associate for Russia and Eurasia here at The Heritage Foundation. Alexis, thank you so much for your time.
Mrachek: Thanks for having me.
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