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Putin Unlikely to Invade Ukraine Despite Overheated U.S. Rhetoric, Says Khrushchev’s Great-Granddaughter

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U.S. and Russian officials are meeting today in Geneva as NATO calls on Russia to remove its troops from along the Ukrainian border. The Russian military has also mobilized soldiers to suppress protests in Kazakhstan. We go to Moscow to speak with Nina Khrushcheva, professor of international affairs at The New School, who says President Vladimir Putin is expanding Russia’s sphere of influence but will not invade Ukraine. “It’s not that he wants to take more territory. I think he wants to get heard,” says Khrushcheva.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: U.S. and Russian military delegations are beginning talks in Geneva this week to find ways to ease tensions amidst Russian military action in eastern Ukraine and deadly protests in Kazakhstan. The New York Times reports Russia has about 100,000 troops stationed along Russia’s border with Ukraine. Russia has blamed the escalating tensions over Ukraine on Western powers. On Friday, the U.S. and NATO on Friday rejected Russian demands that the alliance not admit new members amidst growing concerns that Russia may invade Ukraine, which seeks to join NATO. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said today security negotiations between Russia and the West could provide a pathway to avoid further conflict.

SECRETARY GENERAL JENS STOLTENBERG: These are important efforts to try to make sure to have a political solution that will prevent an armed conflict, and therefore we are going into these talks in good faith, ready to address substance and, of course, ready to listen to Russia’s concerns. I have negotiated with Russia before as the Norwegian prime minister, and I know it’s possible to make deals with Russia.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes as Kazakhstan’s authoritarian President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has described last week’s protests as an attempted coup and defended his call for Russian-led troops into the country to put down the unrest. Demonstrations were triggered by a rise in fuel prices and widened to broader anti-government protests. Over 160 people were killed in the violence, including a 4-year-old girl. Thousands were detained. Tokayev spoke today at a virtual meeting with the Russian-led CSTO, the Collective Security Treaty Organization military alliance.

PRESIDENT KASSYM-JOMART TOKAYEV: [translated] We prevented dangerous threats for the country’s security. As part of the counterterrorist mission, we are trying to identify people who committed those crimes. We detained around 8,000 people, and law enforcement officers and special departments are checking their involvement in terrorist acts, murders, lootings and other crimes.

AMY GOODMAN: A state of emergency and a nationwide curfew remain in place in Kazakhstan. One of the leaders of the opposition movement, called Democratic Choice of Kazakhstanis, is the country’s former energy minister and bank chairman Mukhtar Ablyazov. He fled to the U.K. in 2009 after he was charged with corruption, embezzling $6 billion as head of Kazakhstan’s largest bank. He’s called on the West to get more involved in responding to the protests.

MUKHTAR ABLYAZOV: [translated] If Europe and the U.S. don’t deceive themselves by thinking that it’s just a small task force, then they will react the right way. If not, then Kazakhstan will turn into Belarus, and Putin will methodically impose his program, the recreation of a structure like the Soviet Union.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined in Moscow by Nina Khrushcheva, professor of international affairs at The New School, co-author of In Putin’s Footsteps: Searching for the Soul of an Empire Across Russia’s Eleven Time Zones. She’s also the author of The Lost Khrushchev: A Journey into the Gulag of the Russian Mind. She’s the great-granddaughter of the former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Professor Khrushcheva. Can you first talk about —


AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what’s happening right now in Geneva, the talks between Russia and the United States, and then talk about what’s happening in Ukraine?

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: Thank you, Amy. Happy New Year to all the listeners. It starts in a very tense —with a very tense environment, certainly around Russia.

What we are told, in Geneva, that we will know the results of the first day — actually the second day, because the first meeting, the preliminary meeting, was in a dinner yesterday. We were told that the deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, would be speaking later and explaining what has happened. But so far what I’ve read, the Russians have been saying that they are not going to make any concessions, and if there are any concessions to be made, it should be the Americans, because, according to the Russian side, the Americans are the ones that are threatening, or NATO is something that is threatening, Russian security. So, so far, we are only hearing that diplomacy and conversations are possible, but it doesn’t seem, at least what we’re hearing now, that there are any breakthroughs, although we were told by both Secretary Blinken and the Russian side that they’re not expecting the breakthroughs immediately or maybe even later on, but we will see.

As for Ukraine, it is a little bit of a complicated story, because it’s very unclear exactly what the Russian idea is to have all these troops on the border with Ukraine. I am not of a school of thought that is — I mean, I know that is prevalent in the United States, that Putin is going to invade Ukraine. I think it is a bit of an information attack, as the United States kept saying, especially all the media, and quoting Blinken and quoting Victoria Nuland, who’s responsible for Russia and Eurasia, saying that if and so and we think that they will invade, and therefore we’ll punish them in these very severe manners. Russians are keeping the troops, from my point of view, as they say, to prevent a potential Ukraine encouraged — Ukraine government encouraged by the West and the Western military support from trying to take the territories annexed in 2014 by force. And I am actually tending to trust Putin on that, because I don’t think he wants a large bloodshed. I don’t think he wants to take Kyiv as many analysts have been — American analysts have been suggesting. I think, for him, that’s his own information — of course, being Russian, it should be with the tanks, as well — but his own information and kind of psychological campaign, that if the West, you are not listening to us, we have other options to consider. Unfortunately, it could be a military one.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain the history of U.S. promises to Russia around not expanding NATO.

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: Well, that a — you know, it’s kind of — there’s a lot of debate going on about this. Apparently, James Baker, in 1990, talking with the then-Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, the Soviet foreign minister, did say that Russia [sic] wouldn’t push one inch beyond the current borders. Then the question, of course — they were talking about East Germany and unification of Germany after ’89, after the Berlin Wall fell.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re saying that NATO wouldn’t push one inch.

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: Right. Sorry, yes, NATO wouldn’t push one inch. But they were talking about East Germany, that it wouldn’t go further. And actually, we’ve seen that Germany in fact keeps that promise. So, it is questionable that they — they may have meant the whole NATO expansion, but maybe they only meant Germany.

I think the more important part is the conversation between Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Boris Yeltsin, when then it certainly was a promise that it wouldn’t go, at least not in Yeltsin’s time, as Clinton put it to Yeltsin. But, of course, Yeltsin wasn’t pleased, but he couldn’t do anything at the time. And as we know, in '98, there was a decision by U.S. Congress that the expansion could happen, but, yeah, once again, Clinton said it's not going to happen in your time. And so, that’s why the Russians now, when they’re calling for the arrangement of ’97, they talk about that very moment in 1998 when the U.S. Congress decided that NATO could expand.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let me go to Secretary of State Tony Blinken speaking on ABC News Sunday, saying he doesn’t expect progress in relations with Russia as long as tensions on the Ukraine border remain high.

SECRETARY OF STATE ANTONY BLINKEN: If we’re actually going to make progress in these talks, starting next week — but I don’t think we’re going to see any breakthroughs next week. We’re going to listen to their concerns, they’ll listen to our concerns, and we’ll see if there are grounds for progress. But to make actual progress, it’s very hard to see that happening when there’s an ongoing escalation, when Russia has a gun to the head of Ukraine with 100,000 troops near its borders, the possibility of doubling that on very short order. So, if we’re seeing deescalation, if we’re seeing a reduction in tensions, that is the kind of environment in which we could make real progress and, again, address concerns, reasonable concerns, on both sides.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Professor Khrushcheva, President Biden has made clear if President Putin makes any more moves and goes into Ukraine, Russia will pay a heavy price. They’ve talked about very high-level sanctions. What would those sanctions be? And do you think these threats are productive?

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: I don’t think — I think threats are never productive. And I actually think that Secretary Blinken, interestingly, is very undiplomatic when it comes to Russia. He almost talks about Russia as if it’s North Korea and Putin is Kim Jong-un. I understand that they are angry because they were in charge in 2014, Russian annexation — in charge of preventing Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, and, you know, they really didn’t do such a good job in stopping Putin then, so, in many ways, it’s a little bit of a payback. So, I don’t think threats are useful, and, in fact, they’re certainly never.

And that’s what Russians are trying — at least Putin’s message is just stop threatening us, stop lecturing us, stop telling us that we’re an inferior species, and talk to us. And that’s why he has those troops around the Ukrainian border. It’s like, well, if you’re not understanding it any other way, this is how we are going to make ourselves heard. I don’t know if Putin’s techniques are very useful, either. But, essentially, in some ways — I mean, in Russia, for example, it’s very much compared to the Cuban missile crisis right now, that when two sides were giving each other ultimatums, and the expectation was: Who would blink first? And so far, I am not seeing that either side is ready to blink, because Putin is not going to take off — at least not in large numbers, to take down the troop location around Ukraine, until he hears something from America, and America is not going to do anything until Putin does something to reduce the troop levels.

The sanctions could be insane and dramatic. And that’s why, another thing, I don’t believe that Putin wants to escalate that much. I believe he — it’s not that he wants to take more territory. I think he wants to get heard. In fact, Dmitri Trenin, the director of the Carnegie Center here in Moscow, wrote a really interesting and very levelheaded article in Foreign Affairs, which I invite the listeners to look into. So far, the SWIFT system, Russians are being threatened with taking it down; maybe close borders; maybe stop Aeroflot, the Russian national airline, to fly to the United States; maybe – I forgot. There are some other. Oh, sanction any — not just the Putin environment people, give them very, very tough sanctions, but the whole industries, per se, and so they will not be functional at all. So, the damage can be dramatic, for sure. And that’s why I think both sides are, for now, staring at each other and waiting for who will blink first.

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Nina Khrushcheva: Putin Could Be Kingmaker in Kazakhstan Power Struggle as Russia Helps Quell Protests

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