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As an international march draws support for Ukraine, what else can the U.S. do?


U.S. officials believe Russia has put in place about 70% of the military forces it would need for a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Russian diplomats called the estimation madness. However, the U.S. says they're bracing for sabotage or cyberattacks on the Ukrainian government and in Kyiv. The locals here say nothing surprises them. Remember, they've been at war with Russia for eight years now. And many residents of Kyiv have come from all over the world as transplants, making this city their home.

Yesterday, on a snowy afternoon in the city center, a miniature parade of nations turned out in support of Ukraine's independence.


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing in non-English language).

MARTÍNEZ: Americans, Brits, Germans, Irish, Indians and others took part in the International Unity March for Ukraine, along the way expressing how much they love their adoptive home, all while proudly waving flags from their countries of origin and singing Ukraine's national anthem. Some have lived here for over 20 years.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We're against the Russian aggression. We're against Putin, against war.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: If there's ever a threat to Kyiv, then I will join up with the territorial defense battalion, like I know many of my friends will.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: My wife and daughter and I moved to Ukraine. We love the country. We love the people. And it seems like a travesty that these people have - you know, they've been putting up with this constant existential threat for years and years and years. So it'd be a good time to put a stop to it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: So when Russia invaded Ukraine back in 2014, I saw that the military was not trained and ready for this. And so it broke my heart. And so I came here. And personally, I volunteered, and I trained the Ukrainian Marines. So in 2015, I was here doing that. And I don't call myself an expat. That means I'm an ex-U.S. patriot. I'm a dual-pat. I'm a thorough U.S. patriot and a Ukrainian patriot.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: So I've lived in Ukraine for many years. I'm a British citizen. And I've come here to express my opinion as a citizen of the world that what Mr. Putin is doing is absolutely wrong. This guy won't stop until he takes Ukraine's freedom. So we're here to say to Mr. Putin, hands off Ukraine, leave our children alone.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Ukraine might be a distant country, but it is an important ally. And it is really important to show that we, as international and foreigners, support Ukraine. Ukrainians need support because we share the same values - the values of freedom, the values of solidarity and overall (ph), the pro-Western values.

MARTÍNEZ: Pro-Western values such as freedom of speech or liberal education. One person with long ties to Eastern Europe is Kurt Volker. He served as the U.S. ambassador to NATO under former President George W. Bush, then took on a special envoy position to Ukraine during the Trump administration. He was tasked with helping the Ukrainians resolve their armed conflict with Russia-backed separatists. However, Volker resigned from that job in 2019 after news surfaced that former President Donald Trump tried to pressure Ukraine's president to investigate Joe Biden and his son Hunter. But Volker is still involved in Ukraine. We spoke with him in Kyiv, where he happened to be for the opening of American University Kyiv, a partnership with Arizona State University. Here's what he said about Putin.

KURT VOLKER: He believes that Ukraine isn't an independent state, shouldn't have the ability to make up its own mind, doesn't have its own territory. Well, I think the Ukrainians know who they are. And they know who they're not. And they know where they want to go.

MARTÍNEZ: You mentioned how you think that President Putin doesn't see Ukraine as an independent state. Do you think the U.S. is doing enough to try to help Ukraine achieve that independent state status?

VOLKER: Well, just because President Putin doesn't see it that way doesn't mean it isn't that way. Ukraine is an independent, sovereign state with all the rights that go along with that. It has its own views on different things. And I think what the United States is doing right now is critically important because what we are doing is providing security assistance to Ukraine so that they can defend themselves if Russia attacks them again or deeper than they currently do. We are reinforcing our NATO allies in the neighborhood to show American presence here. We are threatening devastating sanctions on Russia if they were to attack. And there's a series of engagements of people coming to Ukraine and showing support for this country.

MARTÍNEZ: Is there anything more the U.S. could be doing?

VOLKER: I would like to see a bit more, to be honest. I would like to see some sanctions imposed now because of Russia's buildup of forces and threats and extortion and say we would lift those sanctions again if Russia stands down its forces. But we're going to put some in place now and make clear there would be more to come and more devastating if they continue.

I think the security assistance we're providing to Ukraine is great, but I know we're capable of more. And I'd really like to see that accelerated. Ukraine particularly has a few gaps in its military capabilities that I think are in need of attention - air defense, counterelectronic warfare, coastal defense, things like that.

And I think the coordination we're doing with our allies is great. I think a lot of people in the administration put a lot of effort into that. But I still see that there are a lot of differences in tone and nuance with our allies. And I think this this needs to be a priority for the United States - is to really rally the alliance.

MARTÍNEZ: Do you think President Putin would be threatened by sanctions? How do you think he sees sanctions?

VOLKER: Yes, I believe that the sanctions are important, and they're important component of the package. I don't believe that President Putin is moved by sanctions one inch. I think that he will figure that he can ride those out. He's willing to suffer whatever pain that causes to Russia.

What is more gaining his attention is the military support for Ukraine and the diplomatic parade that's coming through Ukraine now with all of these heads of state and all of these foreign ministers that are showing broad support. That kind of thing, I think, goes into his calculus to say, what does this mean for Russia if we do launch another invasion? How will that affect us? So I think those sorts of things get more attention.

MARTÍNEZ: What do you think his endgame is with this? Because I think everyone's been trying to at least get a pulse on it, trying to figure it out at least a little bit.

VOLKER: Yeah. So I don't believe that Putin has an endgame in mind. He has a process in mind. So he likes to create a position of strength. He sets, you know, objectives and goals that are very broad, many of which he knows aren't going to be given to him for free. And then he takes opportunities as they arise. And this is not going to stop. So even if we pass the month of February and March, and hopefully there is no further new military attack against Ukraine, that doesn't mean he's stopping. That doesn't mean he's giving up. We're going to be living with Putin's concerns about Ukrainian independence and what that reflects back into Russia and his desire to rewrite the map of European security for years and years to come.

MARTÍNEZ: Because we've heard a difference in opinions in how this is being viewed by Ukraine and how it's being viewed by the U.S. On the U.S.'s side, it's seen as imminent, something that's about to happen, possibly. Meanwhile, on the Ukrainian side, it's almost as if, hey, it's not as big of a deal as everyone is making it out to be. So which do you think it is?

VOLKER: I think it's a little bit of both. The first thing - you know, if you talk about a threat, it's got two components. There's the capability and the intent. The capability is there. And we've seen this Russian military buildup. And Ukrainians see it, too, and they know it's there.

And where I think we differ is, well, what is the intent here? Is the intent to now launch an immediate invasion? Or is the intent to intimidate and try to extract concessions and play this out over time? Ukrainians certainly think it's more of the latter. We have to be conscious, though, it could be the former.

And either way, how you read this, it comes to a third point, which is, what do we do about it? And I think doing something about it is what we're seeing now - the movement of NATO forces to Central and East European members of the alliance, the increase in security assistance, the diplomatic visits that are going on here, the messaging that's going on.

And I think one thing that we need to be doing even better is projecting confidence. And I think that's something that the Ukrainians need to hear from the United States, and it's something that they want to project themselves.

MARTÍNEZ: Ambassador Volker, thank you for the time.

VOLKER: My pleasure. Thank you.


That's A Martinez reporting from Kyiv, Ukraine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Lisa Weiner is a line producer on Morning Edition. For NPR, she's covered the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan and traveled to Ukraine to cover the Russian invasion in 2022. Prior to joining NPR, she held positions as an editor at WTOP-FM, as an engineer at Radio Free Asia and recorded audio books for the Library of Congress. Weiner has a master's degree in audio technology from American University. She got her start in radio working the late-night shift as a student DJ in the basement of WRUR-FM at the University of Rochester. Weiner has lived in Tel Aviv, Israel, and Budapest, Hungary.
Reena Advani is an editor for NPR's Morning Edition and NPR's news podcast Up First.