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Tired of forever wars, the U.S. weighs options if Russia invades Ukraine

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

President Biden is considering deploying thousands of troops to Eastern Europe. He spent some of the afternoon discussing the situation in Ukraine with his European allies over video conference. And this comes as today, NATO said it's bolstering its, quote, "deterrence" in the Baltic Sea region. All of this because an estimated 100,000 Russian troops have amassed near the Ukraine border. For the moment, a Russian invasion into Ukraine is just a threat, but it is a growing threat that presents a very tangible dilemma for a U.S. president who has said he wants the U.S. out of forever wars.

We're going to talk about that and more with Admiral James Stavridis He was the supreme allied commander to NATO in Europe during the Obama administration. Admiral, thank you very much for joining us.

JAMES STAVRIDIS: Thanks, Asma.

KHALID: So before we get to the bigger policy questions, let me just get you to react to the news that the Biden administration is weighing a troop deployment to Eastern Europe. Defense Secretary Austin has put 8,500 troops on, quote, "heightened alert" to head to Europe. What, in your view, would that accomplish?

STAVRIDIS: I'd say it will do three things. But before we even get there, let's just kind of do the numbers for a minute. The U.S. already has 50,000 troops in Europe. Our NATO allies have well over a billion troops on active duty. Almost all of these troops are volunteers, so there's a formidable force there in place. What these 8,500 do - No. 1, symbolic. United States is going to move troops closer to the border of Russia. No. 2, they're coming with very specific skill sets, Asma. These are experts in cyber intelligence, logistics, all of those kind of skills. And then thirdly, it bolsters the trans-Atlantic connection with the alliance, that the North American allies are coming to Europe.

KHALID: You know, we heard White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki say today that the White House is refining its military plans for all scenarios. Given that you served as NATO's supreme allied commander for Europe, I am curious, you know, with the benefit of hindsight, what advice you would be giving to the President and NATO at this moment.

STAVRIDIS: Roughly what they're doing, which is to say flood the zone, move lethal but defensive weapons into Ukraine as rapidly as possible. No. 2, get the allies together to do the same thing. We're seeing that - the British, the Baltic states are moving these kind of weapons forward. Keep the alliance working together militarily. Move troops up to an active level. All of those are the military things - not completely my wheelhouse. But I'll also be saying, and Mr. President, this is not going to be just a military solution. Got to get the economic sanctions ready to go. We've got to signal those to the Russians. We've got to interact diplomatically, very broadly, globally. Let's try and get this out of a Russia versus U.S. context and get it into a context of Russia versus the democratic world. I think it's moving in that direction.

KHALID: You know, a lot of the conversation about Russia and Ukraine has focused on the military aggression. But Russia does not just pose a physical, military threat to Ukraine. Russia also possesses significant capabilities in cyberwarfare. And how should the U.S. deal with that part of the threat?

STAVRIDIS: We should afford the Ukrainians high-end advice and help in the world of cyber, and that can be, Asma, both defensive to help deflect Russian attacks - and just 10 days ago, we saw the leading edge of that with a series of what are called DDoS attacks knocking down Ukrainian websites. We can help them with defensive cyber. And if we think it's warranted and in the face of an actual invasion, I think we should consider giving them offensive cyber assistance as well. All of that is in our toolkit and ought to be ready to be deployed if necessary.

KHALID: You know, Admiral, we began this conversation by highlighting the dilemma that President Biden finds himself in. He pledged to get the U.S. out of, quote, "forever wars," but yet he sees the world divided into democracies and autocracies, and therefore he simply cannot stand by if Russia invades Ukraine. And given that tension, what do you see as the long-term risks of this moment?

STAVRIDIS: I think the long-term risk certainly is that we stumble into a full-blown Cold War with Russia. And that's in neither nation's interest. And therefore, the secondary risk is a tactical one, which would be a miscalculation that occurs in Ukraine and somehow sparks a broader confrontation in the European theater. I think neither of those are likely to happen, but they're both very dangerous.

In terms of the forever wars, I don't think this fits that category. Those forever wars dragged on, were wars essentially of choice. I think this one is not a war. We are supporting a fellow democracy, the Ukrainians. We have broad support to do this. I think we can and I hope we will deter the Russians from making an offensive military move here.

KHALID: So Admiral, it sounds like you're saying this is much more about deterrence, and it doesn't really fall into the category of, say, Iraq or Afghanistan, as people would think of those forever wars.

STAVRIDIS: I don't think it does at all for the United States, but I'll tell you this, Asma. If Vladimir Putin invades Ukraine and tries to set up camp there, change the regime, station Russian troops, he's the one that will have a forever war. I think you're going to see Ukraine start to look like Chechnya, which is a pretty good analogy. Hopefully, again, Vladimir Putin understands that.

KHALID: We've been speaking with Admiral James Stavridis, former supreme allied commander for Europe. Thank you for taking the time.

STAVRIDIS: Asma, thank you. And let's hope that this does not escalate into a full-blown war. Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.
Ashish Valentine joined NPR as its second-ever Reflect America fellow and is now a production assistant at All Things Considered. As well as producing the daily show and sometimes reporting stories himself, his job is to help the network's coverage better represent the perspectives of marginalized communities.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.