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Ex-Ukrainian defense official doesn't expect Russia to fully invade Ukraine

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, is keeping the world guessing about whether, where and when he intends to send in the troops he's poised to invade Ukraine. President Biden sounds like he's planning for the worst.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: If he were to move in with all those forces, it would be the largest invasion since World War II. It would change the world.

MARTIN: So how are Ukrainians thinking about this potential crisis? NPR's Rob Schmitz was just in Kyiv, Ukraine, and joins us now.

Hey, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So you talked with a former top Ukrainian official about how he sees this current threat. Who is he? What'd he say?

SCHMITZ: Yeah. His name is Andrij Zagorodniuk, and he was defense minister under President Zelenskyy from 2019 to 2020. He has a civilian background. And he heads a defense strategy think tank. He does not expect the Russians to mount a full-scale invasion and occupation of Ukraine with the force they currently have amassed on Ukraine's borders, which he estimates at around 127,000 troops.

Here's what he told me.

ANDRIJ ZAGORODNIUK: A hundred and twenty-seven thousand is not even close to what you need to occupy Ukraine or even half of Ukraine. So we need, like, at least 300,000, perhaps even more. Potentially, we may see the increase of troops, but we don't see this at the moment.

SCHMITZ: Another thing Zagorodniuk told me he's not seeing yet is enough Russian mobile hospital units and medical personnel near the borders to indicate that a Russian invasion is imminent.

MARTIN: OK. But I assume he doesn't think Russia's just not going to do anything. I mean, what does he think Russia's most likely move is?

SCHMITZ: So he lays out a bunch of what he calls likely scenarios. And the first one is something that's already happening - Russian so-called hybrid warfare. And these are things like cyberattacks, which we've already seen on Ukraine's government. There are also efforts to weaken or distract police and military. Last Friday, dozens of schools in Kyiv sent students home because of a series of bomb threats that were suspected to be a Russian hybrid attack. He also said it was highly likely that Russia would escalate tensions in Ukraine's eastern border region, where Ukrainian troops have been fighting Russian-backed insurgents for eight years.

MARTIN: Does he foresee any major military action on a new front, something besides the east?

SCHMITZ: Well, he also expects the Russian Navy to block Ukrainian access to the Black and Azov Seas along Ukraine's southern coast, which would disrupt important shipping routes to and from the country. The Russian Navy is much bigger than the Ukrainian Navy, and it's got a base in Crimea.

MARTIN: I've also been seeing all these reports, though, Rob, about Russia sending troops to Belarus...

SCHMITZ: Right.

MARTIN: ...North of Ukraine. They're planning joint exercises with the Belarusian Army next month. Did the former defense minister talk about the threat there at all?

SCHMITZ: Yeah. He thinks it's likely that after those exercises are finished, Russian armed forces will, instead of heading back home, stay in position along the Belarusian-Ukrainian border. That's a big concern for Ukraine because that border is around a hundred miles away from the capital of Kyiv. Zagorodniuk says if Putin does that and if he then sends tens of thousands of more troops to that region, that would obviously be something to be very worried about.

MARTIN: Is he thinking - what's - about timing? I mean, what's the most realistic timeline for something like this to happen?

SCHMITZ: Well, he doesn't think any kind of military attack or invasion is likely before the end of the Beijing Winter Olympics so as not to steal the global spotlight from Russia's ally China. The Games run from February 4 through the 20. All in all, though, Zagorodniuk says a large-scale invasion of Ukraine would be a very big gamble for Russian President Vladimir Putin. In Europe, such a large occupation hasn't taken place since World War II. And there would likely be tens of thousands of casualties, very high cost to occupy and administer the territory. And he predicts a massive resistance movement because an overwhelming majority of Ukrainians would not be willing to live under Russian rule. And if there's anything that I learned in my reporting trip this time to Kyiv, it's that Ukrainians are more than prepared to fight to defend their homeland.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Rob Schmitz based in Berlin, but he just got back from a reporting trip to Kyiv. Thank you so much.

SCHMITZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.