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U.S. claims differ from what Russia says is happening along the Ukraine border

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

There are competing claims about what is happening along Russia's border with Ukraine, where more than a hundred thousand Russian troops have been posted for the last several weeks. Russia says it has pulled back some of those troops. The U.S. says that is not true. Last night, a senior administration official told reporters that Russia is actually increasing its military presence along the border by as many as 7,000 troops, with some arriving as recently as today. Here to parse through the claims, we turn now to retired U.S. Army Brigadier General Peter Zwack. He served as the U.S. defense attache to Russia from 2012 to 2014. Welcome, General.

PETER ZWACK: Yes. Good morning to you and your listeners.

MARTINEZ: Now, OK, conflicting claims from Russia and the U.S. - General, what do you make of this discrepancy?

ZWACK: It's - it makes everything more complicated now. This is not new. There have been aspects of this since Minsk-1 and Minsk-2 were signed in 2014 and 2015. OSCE is out there. It's along the line of contact. And these are reports that go back and forth over this long period of - you know, thousands have died. So in isolation and linked to this time when everybody should be taking a breath and slowing down, it is troublesome. And over the years, it has been a back-and-forth rounds here.

MARTINEZ: General, what would you need to see to make you believe that the Russians are really indeed pulling back, as they claim?

ZWACK: Yes. Well, first, in a perfect world, through the OSCE and what they call the Vienna Convention, there should be observers on both sides that are actually, with their eyes - OSCE and - OSCE observers that actually see these forces pulling back. Up-front type of units like short- to medium-range artillery - if they're in place, they should be packing up and going out. Basic, you know, stockpiles right up near the front should be picked up and pulled out.

MARTINEZ: General, does it matter where they would be packed up to? From the - for the equipment and the troops that have come from a longer distance, would it matter if those were the ones that went back?

ZWACK: Yes. From the - those forces from the Central Military District and Siberia, the Eastern Military District that we've heard of - that would be significant if they're loaded on trains and start to go. I think that there are a lot of smart analysts that are watching it. And if they're saying that this is just in dribs and drabs and added forces are coming in, obviously we're very, very skeptical. The forces - one other point to watch closely - 20 February is a witching hour. That is when, ostensibly, the union resolved - the Russian-Belarusian exercise ends in Belarus. At that point, do the Russians withdraw? And we should watch that very closely. If not, we should be very troubled by that. And then, of course, the fleet activities in the Black Sea - the Russians brought in, just recently, a number of landing craft - big landing craft from the Baltics. How those go - what they go - so there's a lot to be watching for.

MARTINEZ: And these exercises that you mention, why does the U.S. - why have they been saying for months that this seems different? I mean, aren't exercises just military exercises?

ZWACK: Well, very simply, we had in April, you know, a big, big demonstration that the Russians then called exercises - got everybody nervous. Then, if we remember - and you reported on it - you had the Zapad, the quadrennial, the big, the huge Russian and Belarus exercise in the Western Military District last September. Now, that was the big one. This one, the Russians are saying, is - are exercises. These weren't announced. These were massive and linked directly, many believe, to the statements from Vladimir Putin out of the Kremlin about the demands regarding NATO, regarding 1997, regarding Ukraine itself. So seeing them come out of Belarus would be important, but there was no big - something on this scale was never reported to the OSCE or anybody else. It is highly dangerous and highly irregular at this time. Last thing, the Russians have a time hassle now. They are a month away - three weeks away from what they call Rasputitsa, the time without roads, when anything off-road is a sea of mud in these regions, which plagued the Germans in '41 and both the Soviets and the Germans in 1943, '44.

MARTINEZ: General, one last thing. I just got back from Ukraine - I'm sorry - and everyone I spoke to there told me that if Russia, indeed, decided to invade, that they would face a much different group of Ukrainian soldiers and Ukrainian people - much different than in 2014. How much does that mean in this situation against Russia's military might, to have a group of people with a bigger sense of resolve and a bigger sense of national identity?

ZWACK: Yes, great question. You will have hundreds of thousands of people that would be active in a defense, whether in formed units or in irregular militias. It will be tough to fight the Russian formations out in the open, but you've got many, many towns, cities, that can be fortified and that will be hell on Russian formations trying to take, let alone hold, it. And then there are millions of Ukrainian citizens that may not be fighters that would be passively resisting, that would be just fundamentally against such an invasion. It would be really hard, especially in that entire region where all these nations are looking - and very, very troubled with what's going on.

MARTINEZ: General Peter Zwack is a global fellow at the Wilson Center's Kennan Institute. General, thank you.

ZWACK: Take care. All best. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.