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Putin describes the attack on Ukraine as an act of self-defense

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Let's turn now to Jeffrey Edmonds, whose research focuses on the Russian military. He was director for Russia at the National Security Council in 2017. Thank you so much for joining us this morning.

JEFFREY EDMONDS: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, is calling this an act of self-defense. How can he justify that?

EDMONDS: I think - there are so many different false flag operations in the east. I mean, it's really quite remarkable that almost everything we were seeing in the east leading up until yesterday were completely fabricated events. And so there really is no justification given the size of the military operation and the fact that he's practically invading half the country at this point.

MARTIN: He's talking about denazification. What does that mean in this context?

EDMONDS: The Russian leadership have often used references to Nazi forces as a way of demonizing whoever it is they're targeting, whether that's through information against the Baltic states or what have you. And so this is just kind of a common phrase used by him to really kind of demonize elements of the Ukrainian population and provide even more false justification for what he's doing.

MARTIN: And the Russians accept that, the larger Russian population.

EDMONDS: It's hard to say. I mean, there's - you know, they're saying that everybody in Russia lost somebody to the Nazis. And so the - World War II is much more present, I would say, in their minds than, for example, in the United States of each common person. And so it may resonate some. I don't think that large portions of the population actually believe that denazification is something that needs to happen to Ukraine.

MARTIN: Ukraine has invested a lot of money and resources into its military since Russia took Crimea in 2014. Are they any more capable of pushing Russia back now?

EDMONDS: I don't - they really stand a very hard task in front of them. The Russian military is much more superior in terms of equipment and training and size. I mean, over 70% of the Russian military is now engaged in some way in this operation. And so they have improved since 2014, but it's going to be really hard to actually push Russian forces back.

MARTIN: President Zelenskyy is urging people to take up arms, civilians, and we've seen training programs like that. Are we looking at urban warfare?

EDMONDS: We might be, and that's one of the big unknowns here is what kind of insurgent or - you know, what kind of resistance movement we're actually going to see. I mean, this isn't Afghanistan or Iraq. So it's hard - it's really hard to say what actually - you know, how much you can motivate somebody to get off the couch, grab an, you know, a anti-tank weapon and go out in the streets and start shooting people. But this is a big unknown and really could complicate Russian operations.

MARTIN: Putin gave this video address, released this video address before the attack, and in it, he said, quote, "anyone who tries to interfere with us must know that Russia's response will be immediate and will lead you to such consequences as you have never experienced in your history." What will those consequences look like?

EDMONDS: I think what he's trying to do is control escalation, right? He's trying to over-escalate in order to get us to back away. And he would - it would not surprise me if he starts referring to nuclear weapons or all-out war, things like that, like he's done in the past as a way of trying to up the ante and, really, you know, give us pause in any kind of assistance we would give Ukraine.

MARTIN: I mean, does that work? Is that likely to compel the U.S. and NATO allies to make a concession about either Ukraine's status as a potential member of NATO or reducing the Western footprint of forces along the eastern flank in Europe?

EDMONDS: I don't think so. I mean, I think, you know, while we've been very careful to not make - take actions that would, you know, bring about a war between NATO and Russia, at the same time, we're bolstering our military there. And all of the things that Putin had pushed against, like an open-door policy and NATO expansion, all - that conversation is done now. He's actually strengthened NATO by invading Ukraine.

MARTIN: President Biden said in recent weeks that if Russia were to go ahead with this, with an invasion of Ukraine, as we have now seen, it would, quote, "change the world." Does the world look different to you today?

EDMONDS: It does, to a degree. I mean, what he is trying to do is change the security architecture in Europe. And, you know, in his mind, he's trying to rectify a really sour deal that Russia received at the end of the Cold War. And I think we just haven't seen one country invade another country that really had no intent on attacking Russia. And so I think this is kind of a new dark thing that we're seeing on the continent.

MARTIN: Jeffrey Edmonds, Russia military expert with the Center for Naval Analyses, thank you so much. We appreciate your perspective this morning.

EDMONDS: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MO RANA'S "MEASURE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.