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Biden administration considers sending up to 5,000 troops to Eastern Europe

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We get a view next from a city where people could be forgiven for feeling nearly surrounded today. Kyiv - or Kyiv (ph) - is the capital of Ukraine. Russian troops have now appeared to the north of the city. They already were to the east and south, more than 100,000 Russian troops in all. NPR's Rob Schmitz is in the city and joins us. Hey there, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: What's it like to be where you are?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, it's interesting. It seems like a normal city that - everyone is sort of enjoying themselves, and restaurants are full. People are enjoying the daily snowfall that they have here. But when you start to talk to people here, you realize that people are preparing for something. And, you know, you've got Russian troops, as you mentioned, on all sides. And Belarus, of course, is pretty close to Kyiv, so people are worried that that is where Russian troops will come from. It's a few hours away from here. And I talked to many people yesterday who told me that they have emergency packs already prepared in their apartments, ready for the worst.

INSKEEP: Well, the United States is also doing the equivalent of emergency packs here - at least considering, we're told, sending several thousand troops to the region, not to Ukraine but to NATO allies nearby. What do people think of that where you are?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, over the past few days, in my interviews with military officials and members of Ukraine's Parliament, nobody expected this. Nobody expected that the U.S. or NATO would send troops to this region. One Parliament member told me that this would never happen. So this is both surprising and encouraging for Ukrainians, and if this is true, it will certainly boost morale here on the ground.

INSKEEP: There's also a U.S. ally weighing in over the weekend. British intelligence shared a finding, an accusation, that Russia was planning to install a kind of Ukrainian puppet to run the country. Do Ukrainians see that as a real possibility?

SCHMITZ: Yes, they do, but they didn't agree with who the British foreign office said it would be. And as far as how prepared Ukraine is, veterans who would be called up to serve tell me that Ukraine is far more prepared than Moscow presumes. Ukraine has 250,000 troops on active duty who are ready to fight and more than double that who would be called up from the reserves if Russia attacks. I spoke to Volodymyr Prymachenko, veterans affairs minister of Kyiv yesterday. He's in charge of the reserves here in the capital. And he told me that Ukrainian troops hold a distinct psychological advantage.

VOLODYMYR PRYMACHENKO: (Speaking Ukrainian).

SCHMITZ: And, Steve, he's saying here that when he served in the 2014 war against Russia, his battalion took a group of Russian soldiers as prisoners. He said they were demoralized and admitted that they had no idea what they were fighting for. He says Ukrainian soldiers, on the other hand, are defending their homeland, and they're ready to die for it. It's clear to them what they're fighting for, and their spirit is far stronger.

INSKEEP: They also have more arms because the U.S. is now sending lethal aid. What do Ukrainian officials say they need?

SCHMITZ: The one thing that everyone's telling me is technical weapons like Javelin anti-tank missiles. Stinger surface-to-air missiles were on their lists. But what is also needed is clarity. I spoke to Parliament member Ivana Klympush-Tintsadze, who says all this aid is great, but it'd be more helpful to know when it can expect action against Russia, what needs to happen to put that in motion, and here's what she said.

IVANA KLYMPUSH-TINTSADZE: What will be that tipping point when the West will decide to act? Just this week, Russia has already conducted two serious cyberattacks on Ukrainian governmental sites. That's not yet, you know, a red line, as we understand. So what will be that red line?

INSKEEP: Given that the U.S. has said it's not going to send troops into Ukraine, what more do they hope for from the United States?

SCHMITZ: Well, they're hoping that the U.S. would be more preemptive with Putin to put him off balance. You know, the ball's in Putin's court, and the idea here is to put him on the defense. Now, both President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have so far ruled out any kind of preemptive action against Russia. Ukrainian officials are also hoping for economic sanctions that could financially cripple Putin and his cronies.

INSKEEP: NPR's Rob Schmitz is in Kyiv. Thanks so much.

SCHMITZ: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.

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