A Russian army soldier takes part in drills at the Kadamovskiy firing range in the Rostov region in southern Russia, Friday, Dec. 10, 2021.

Russia may ‘break a tooth’ if they ‘take a bite’ out of Ukraine, analyst warns

Mark Galeotti, a Russia security expert with the British think tank Royal United Services Institute, joined The World's host Marco Werman to discuss growing military tensions between Russia and Ukraine, just six days after the two presidents met.

The World

When US President Joe Biden met with Russian President Vladimir Putin last week, the top agenda item was the buildup of Russian troops along the Ukrainian border. Biden sent clear warnings to Putin to not invade.

"I made it absolutely clear to President Putin. It's the last thing I'll say, that if he moves on Ukraine, the economic consequences for his economy are going to be devastating," Biden said this past weekend at a press conference in his home state of Delaware.

US intelligence officials say Russia has moved 70,000 troops toward Ukraine’s border and is preparing for a possible invasion early next year. Moscow denies it has any plans to attack Ukraine and rejects Western concerns as part of a smear campaign.

Related: Pro-Kremlin party keeps large majority in Russian parliament

Mark Galeotti, a Russia security expert with the British think tank Royal United Services Institute, joined The World's host Marco Werman to discuss growing military tensions between the countries just days after the Biden-Putin meeting.  

Marco Werman: So, it's been days since a meeting between Biden and Putin. What are your takeaways since then? What have you observed as the two leaders return to their respective corners? 
Mark Galeotti: Well, the Russian troop movements certainly have not stopped. There's no sign of deescalation. They're quite the opposite. There's more forces moving in. Actually, the Russians have come back essentially by escalating their demands. They want cast-iron legal guarantees that NATO will not extend eastward, that neither Ukraine nor Georgia will at any point be allowed to join the security alliance. And also that NATO won't base any kind of weapons systems that could be threatening to Russia on neighboring countries. And that includes, after all, NATO's countries. Now, this is something they must know that the West cannot accept. So, we can hope that this is just, in a way, the first stage of a haggling process. But at the moment, it's one hell of an ask. 

Related: Zelenskiy-Biden meeting signals 'reassurance' of ongoing US support to Ukraine, former Amb says 

The military buildup from the Russian side has continued. Does it look to your eyes like the buildup has a clear purpose? 
Yes. Look, there's no question about it, that this is the kind of buildup which, if you are looking for a major incursion into Ukraine, this is what you would generate. You generate not just the front-line forces to do the fighting, but also the logistics, the rear-area stuff, making sure you've got the ammunition and the supplies and all the transport and such. So, we don't yet know. And probably, Putin doesn't know for sure whether this is ultimately one very, very realistic bluff or whether this is the real preparations for war. And I think this is classic Putin. He's giving himself two potential routes. 
So, elaborate a bit more on the Ukraine military side. What can you tell us about their military preparedness to defend itself if Russian troops do come across the border? 
Well, in some ways, the best way that I can put it is actually a line that I got from a Russian military analyst when I was in Moscow last month, which is, "Russia can take a big bite out of Ukraine, but it might well break a tooth in doing so." The Ukrainian military is stronger than it's ever been. I mean, in 2013, 2014, it was basically in collapse and you know, they were having to rely on volunteer militias and so forth. Now, they've got a quarter of a million men and women under arms with some very, very sort of, well, learned combat experience from the undeclared war that's been going on in the Donbas region. They have been trained by the Americans and the British. They've got at least a limited number of very modern resample, anti-tank missiles, javelins. So, look, they absolutely could deliver a certain sort of pain to the Russians. But when it comes down to it, the Russians, they have air power. They have long-range firepower, massive advantages on the battlefield. The Russians would win in the initial engagement. The thing is, if the Russians end up trying to occupy territory, they're going to find themselves in a guerrilla war against the people who absolutely regard them as a hostile alien invader. 
Would NATO countries step up to defend Ukraine if Russia were to attack? 
I think it's fairly clear that there will not be any question of NATO's troops being sent in to defend Ukraine for all kinds of reasons, including the fact that Ukraine is not a NATO member and therefore, doesn't have the same guarantees. On the other hand, I mean, beyond the threat of sanctions, we've seen military assistance being provided to Ukrainians. It's not impossible that if that did happen, they would be behind the scenes, perhaps with special forces and some kind of assistance being provided. But essentially, this is a war that the Ukrainians will have to fight. We can support them in every way we can, but it's the Ukrainians that will be fighting and dying. 
I'm always reluctant to ask anyone to predict the future, but on this one, I'm really curious, what do you see happening? 
You know, this is the interesting thing, of all the various crises we've had in recent years, this, for me, is absolutely the hardest one to call when it comes down to it. I mean, maybe it's simply because it's what I want to believe. I don't think we're actually going to see a full-scale war. I think that will be disastrous. It will be disastrous for Russia as well as for Ukraine and the West. But unfortunately, we're not at a point where I could rule it out.

This interview was lightly edited and condensed for clarity. AP contributed to this report.  

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