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Foreign policy expert argues Russia won't stop until it has conquered Ukraine


A number of recent photographs show Russian President Vladimir Putin sitting at the head of a very long table. At the other end, 10 or 20 feet away, sits a foreign leader or maybe some key advisors. It's apparently a COVID precaution, but Putin is literally keeping everyone at way more than arm's length - even his top staff.

ANGELA STENT: I think these decisions are being made very much by Putin himself in conjunction with a few other people who aren't going to contradict him.

PFEIFFER: Angela Stent wrote the book "Putin's World: Russia Against The West And With The Rest," and she's a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution. We spoke with her to understand Putin's thinking in waging war against Ukraine, starting with if he has underestimated the Ukrainian resistance so far.

STENT: I think that Putin and the people around him failed to understand what was happening in Ukraine, and I think they were surprised that they weren't able to march into Ukraine and take Kyiv in two days as they had previously said that they would. They're surprised by the resistance and the determination of the Ukrainians to fight back.

PFEIFFER: You think it's a combination of underestimating Ukraine's military might and national spirit and unity?

STENT: When they think back to 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and started a war in the southeastern part of Ukraine in the Donbas region, they didn't meet with resistance from the Ukrainians. 14,000 people have died in that war in the Donbas region, and so the Ukrainians have realized that they need to fight back. And the West has really come to their assistance, has been giving the military training, and they've really reformed and rebuilt their army.

PFEIFFER: Given the pushback that Putin is getting, do you think there is a chance of a cease-fire agreement in the near future?

STENT: I wish there would be, but I very much doubt that there is. And they seem to be uninterested in that. The goal is clearly to subjugate Ukraine. We see, now, columns of tanks moving in on Kyiv. The 2nd largest city, Kharkiv, is under extreme bombardment with heavy casualties. So it looks as if what they're going to do is fight until they have subdued the country, and then they're going to try and install a government which will be pro-Russian.

PFEIFFER: And as much as the world is uniting around and behind Ukraine right now, do you feel that, ultimately, Putin and Russia prevail here?

STENT: They probably will prevail because the United States, for very good reasons, has said we are not going to send American troops to fight Russia with two nuclear superpowers, and, therefore, we can't do that. NATO is not going to get into a war with Russia. There is a limit to what the West can do given the fact that Russia is a nuclear superpower and is intent on conquering Ukraine.

PFEIFFER: That's a very grim assessment, especially given all the sort of social media cheering and rallying behind Ukraine and hoping for the best.

STENT: Well, and, of course, we should be amazed by how well they're fighting back in their resistance and their spirit, but they, too, realize that they are really alone in this fight. We are trying to supply them now with more weapons to fight the Russians and, of course, all of the sanctions that we've imposed on Russia - crippling, brutal sanctions. But that doesn't seem to have changed Putin's calculus, either.

PFEIFFER: We are hearing reports of Russians being arrested because they've had anti-war protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg and other cities. Do those protests seem representative to you? Can we gauge what Russian citizens' sentiment is toward Putin based on them?

STENT: Well, what's remarkable is that these brave Russians are protesting all across Russia, not just in the big cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg, which we expect more. We've had 170 prominent journalists and cultural figures sign letters condemning the war. We've even had some of the oligarchs come out and say that peace talks need to begin immediately.

And I think we have to wait and see what happens when body bags start coming back and how, you know, the average family response to that. And, of course, for those Russians who only watch state-run media, what they're being told is that this war is a result of American and NATO aggression. And so the public opinion data that we do have shows that over 50% of the Russian population blame the United States for this.

PFEIFFER: Even if the Russian public turned on Putin, do revulsion and protests make any difference in an autocratic country?

STENT: It's very difficult for that to affect the political system, and Russia has become a much more repressive country in the last year even. And most of - you know, 5,000 people have already been arrested for protesting this war. Many opposition figures are either in jail or in exile. So it's very difficult to make that opposition felt at the highest level.

PFEIFFER: That's Angela Stent, a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution and author of "Putin's World: Russia Against The West And With The Rest." Angela, thank you very much.

STENT: Good to talk to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.
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.