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The White House still believes that Moscow is preparing to invade Ukraine

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Russian troops are encroaching on Ukraine's border. And the U.S. says all its intelligence points to preparations for a full-scale invasion. But President Biden says he's open to meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in principle if Russia doesn't attack Ukraine. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, brokered the possible meeting. The White House says details of the potential summit will be worked out by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Russian counterpart later this week. In the meantime, the Biden administration still believes Moscow is preparing for an attack.

Over the weekend, Russia extended military drills in Belarus that were set to end on Sunday, keeping about 30,000 of its troops there. Let's get some perspective and some context from former U.S. diplomat Daniel Fried. He served as assistant secretary of state for Europe and is now a wiser family distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council. Ambassador Fried, good morning.

DANIEL FRIED: Morning.

FADEL: So let's start with this possible Biden-Putin summit. Is this a breakthrough?

FRIED: Potentially. But I'd rather think it's an attempt by the U.S. to try everything to ward off a full-scale World War II-style invasion. It's worth a try, but don't break out the champagne. It's not peace in our time.

FADEL: If this summit were to happen, would it be seen as a concession from Putin?

FRIED: From Putin or to Putin? I'm sure we'll get arguments on both sides.

FADEL: OK.

FRIED: I think French President Macron was doing the right thing trying to find any reasonable way to avert a major war in Europe. Now, the United States is - of course, could easily avoid a war by simply caving in to Putin's demands and allowing Putin to essentially conquer Ukraine without a war. That we're unwilling to do because the Ukrainian people are unwilling to do that. The Biden administration and Europe have held that line. We won't give Putin the sphere of domination in Europe that he wants. We won't give him - we won't hand him Ukraine.

So Putin is threatening a war. Whether he intends to launch it is not clear. The Biden administration thinks so. They're basing their judgment on intelligence I haven't seen, but they're serious about it. The Russians are acting just - now just like they did before the Russo-Georgian War in 2008. That is fake stories and easily debunked stories of so-called Ukrainian aggression setting up a pretext to war. That doesn't mean that Putin will necessarily do it. He might be - engage brinksmanship to try to frighten us into concessions. He may look at this meeting as a chance to extract concessions from President Biden at Ukraine's and Europe's expense.

I don't think he'll get it. I don't think Biden will cave. But if it gives Putin the excuse he needs not to go to war, to say, they're listening to me, or they're coming to me - if it gives his propaganda machine a chance to pound their chests and claim victory and Putin doesn't go to war, then it's worth it.

FADEL: You say...

FRIED: So the Biden administration is trying to work with all of these variables right now.

FADEL: Let me ask you about Putin's demands. You say that the U.S. will not cave and hand Ukraine over to Russia. One of the things they're asking for is that Ukraine won't join NATO, a promise they're not going to get. But is there something the U.S. and its allies could promise Putin to de-escalate the situation at this point?

FRIED: Well, the U.S. has already said that it's willing to discuss arms control measures, security - various kinds of security, assurances, limits on exercises, military stabilization measures, all that kind of thing. What senior people in the administration have told me is if Putin has particular concerns about NATO, about Ukraine, put them on the table, and we can deal with them. But we're not, they've said - we're not going to draw a line in Europe and say that east of that line is yours. That they won't do, and they shouldn't do.

FADEL: Right now you talk about how Putin - maybe he's threatening just to get the concessions he wants. But what is in it for Russia if it actually does this full-scale invasion? It's incredibly expensive. It could face crippling sanctions. Why make that move?

FRIED: Well, that's exactly what's so puzzling. It doesn't - a full-on invasion doesn't make any sense. The Russian economy will suffer. They will be isolated. The long-term consequences are not going to be good for Russia. Russian history shows that these kinds of aggressive wars don't - often don't go well for Russia. So what is he thinking? That's the argument that he's simply engaging in brinksmanship. On the other hand, those who say Putin is determined to go to war understand that for him, controlling Ukraine is critical. He doesn't think Ukraine is a real country. He doesn't think Ukrainians are a separate people. He thinks that Russia can be a great nation only if it controls Ukraine, that what made Russia great in history was its control over Ukraine starting in the 17th century. That's nuts, but that may be what Putin is thinking.

FADEL: In the few seconds we have left, how would a full-scale invasion look? How do we define full-scale invasion?

FRIED: You'll know it when you see it - air attacks, rocket attacks. The tanks will roll. Cities could burn. This is going to look like World War II. That's what it'll look like. There won't be any mistaking if he does it. There are other - he has options, though, short of that.

FADEL: Ambassador Daniel Fried, former assistant secretary of state for Europe, thank you so much for your time.

FRIED: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.