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Russian warships move into the Black Sea for what Moscow calls naval drills

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

What's it like to watch as Russian warships move into the Black Sea closer to striking distance of Ukraine?

Yoruk Isik is a marine consultant in Turkey who spends a lot of time watching one of the world's busiest waterways, the Bosporus strait.

YORUK ISIK: This is the only way to have access into the Black Sea. So Russia cares deeply because this is the only way in, and this is the only way out.

MARTIN: We reached him yesterday as the first Russian vessels moved through the strait along the Turkish coast into the Black Sea. And we asked him to describe what he was seeing

ISIK: Right now I'm in Istanbul. It's freezing. And it's like a beginning of a crime novel. It's, like, dark, and it's raining crazily. And three giant Russian landing ships pass back to back in the narrow straits of the Bosporus into the Black Sea under the cover of darkness. And these ships - every ship can carry maybe up to 20 tanks.

MARTIN: Now, Russia insists that these ships are part of a pre-planned naval exercise. But are the ship movements part of Putin's increasing threat on Ukraine, or is it a sign he is ready to follow through? We're joined now by former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, retired Admiral Mike Mullen. Admiral, thanks for being with us.

MIKE MULLEN: Thanks. Good to be with you, Rachel.

MARTIN: This type of ship is designed for beach landings. And they can carry some pretty heavy weaponry, as we heard there - battalions of troops as well. Does it make sense to you that this would all be harmless naval exercises right now?

MULLEN: No. It doesn't make any sense at all in that regard. It is a continuation, I think, of just the buildup that President Putin has generated over these many, many weeks. And as was stated, this is a vital waterway. There's only one way in, one way out. And for the Russians to have forces, you know, in the Black Sea, ready to go ashore in a place in a key port like Sevastopol makes a lot of sense if, in fact, he's going to pull the trigger.

MARTIN: Let's talk about that because you have a unique outlook. You have had to weigh different threats from Russia over the course of your career to try to get inside Vladimir Putin's head to some degree. Based on your experience and your current read on the situation, how likely do you think Russia is to try to take over Ukraine by force?

MULLEN: Well, I think like just about everybody else, it's very, very difficult to know exactly what he's going to do. He clearly is poised. It's not dissimilar to what he did in 2008 before the invasion of Georgia exercise, and then turn that exercise into an invasion. He's clearly - he sent his generals there yesterday. They arrived in Belarus for this exercise. So it certainly gives every indication that the possibility is there. What I think is a little bit different than back then is that I think President Biden and NATO have responded very strongly. It's very clear there's going to be a significant downside for Putin if he does this. I think in a way it's almost backfired, that he's actually strengthened NATO, galvanized NATO. The leadership is together. And, in fact, it could work very much against everything that he wanted to achieve in terms of NATO's strength, with respect to how the future unfolds.

MARTIN: But let me ask you about that, because when I was reporting in Ukraine, I talked to a former member of the Ukrainian parliament who said, the fact that we're even in this position is because Putin never faces consequences. Did the U.S. and NATO make a mistake by not defending Ukraine more aggressively when Russia took its territory back in 2014?

MULLEN: Well, I think - I mean, we can look at it that way. I just - you know, in retrospect, I don't think it was very likely that we were going to do anything. That said, it's very clear right now that President Biden and NATO are prepared to execute significant consequences. Of great significance will be the financial consequences that I think the leaders - NATO leaders have made very clear. I think yesterday's visit by the German chancellor indicates that the possibility that Nord Stream 2, the gas pipeline, gets cut off is very, very hard. And I think it really isolates - it will isolate Putin if he decides to do this. And I think one of the things he's after, quite frankly, similar to Georgia, is a regime change in Ukraine. And one of the big concerns, should he affect that, for me, is the reminder that we could have Russian troops back on the Polish border. So there's an awful lot at stake right now. And still, I don't think anybody really knows whether he's going to go in except Putin himself.

MARTIN: U.S. military officials keep talking about a multipronged attack. I mean, as we've mentioned, there are Russian troops in Belarus doing these exercises. Now these war vessels are in the Black Sea. Do you see it coming from the north, south and the east? What is like?

MULLEN: I think if he goes and certainly goes significantly, I do. You know, it's a stark reminder that where he is in Belarus right now is a mere two hours or so from the capital. And clearly what he could do in the south in the Black Sea we talked about earlier, and then coming in from the east. So basically Ukraine is surrounded. He also could do something of a smaller scale in the east, where he's focused on the Donbas area, and end up with a similar outcome that we had in Georgia, where Abkhazia and Ossetia end up essentially being, you know, Russian - almost Russian territories. But it looks like it's going to be a lot stronger than that if he decides to go.

MARTIN: Although Ukraine's military is different today, right? The Ukrainian government has funneled billions of dollars to build up their armed forces since 2014, when Russia took Crimea and those provinces. And they're determined to fight. So is Russia prepared to fight a well-armed insurgency for many years to come?

MULLEN: Well, it looks like - I'm not sure if he's prepared to fight an insurgency for years to come. He learned a pretty stark lesson in Afghanistan. But it's very clear the Ukrainians are prepared to fight, that they will push back strongly. And the estimates of what you see in terms of losses are fairly significant - upwards of 50,000 Ukrainians in a recent estimate. And there would be a lot of Russians who died as well. Obviously, he will take that into consideration in making this decision.

MARTIN: Former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen - thank you so much.

MULLEN: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.