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Examining the importance of the only bridge connecting Crimea to Russia

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Andrew Weiss, who directs research on Russia and Eurasia at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and is also the author of a forthcoming biography of Vladimir Putin called "Accidental Czar." Welcome to the program, sir.

ANDREW WEISS: Great to be here.

INSKEEP: Let's talk about the bridge that was struck over the weekend that seems to have led up to the Russian apparent retaliation or response on Ukrainian cities. How much does that bridge to Crimea mean to Vladimir Putin?

WEISS: Well, in practical terms, right now, it means a great deal because one of the most important pieces of Ukrainian territory that Vladimir Putin's mind has to be focused on right now is Crimea. And that bridge was both a symbolic gesture to connect mother Russia to Crimea, which was seized from and illegally annexed in 2014 from Ukraine. But right now, the Russians are in need of good military infrastructure and supply and logistics routes. And that bridge was a key part of the plan.

INSKEEP: And just to emphasize that this is a bridge that's used by civilians, used by civilian traffic. But it sounds like it would count as a military target for that purpose.

WEISS: Well, the U.S. government, during the earlier phases of this war, had been at pains to stress that it was counseling the Ukrainians to avoid targeting Russian territory proper and to avoid attacks that could provoke a cycle of escalation against Ukraine. So the bridge has been important symbolic issue throughout the war. People were always wondering what, if anything, might prompt the Ukrainians to attack it. We know it was Putin's 70th birthday. And that provided an important psychological boost to the Ukrainians and to their supporters, to show that no targets are off limits. The question now is, are we in an escalatory spiral? Today's attacks on civilians across Ukraine indicates that we very much are.

INSKEEP: Well, let's follow up on that. But first, let's bring Jason Beaubien back into the conversation. He's in Kyiv. And he's got a question for you. Jason, Go.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Yeah. I mean, I think one of the big questions that I keep hearing from Ukrainians is, what is it that President Putin really wants? And I wonder whether you have some insight on that.

WEISS: So that is the $64,000 question, Jason. In the first phase of this war in 2014, 2015, people were asking the same questions. The Russians have always done a lousy job of defining their strategic objectives, which, in theory, leaves them plenty of flexibility. But it also denies people on their side a real sense of what they're fighting for. In the most recent instance, both President Putin and former president, now adviser Dmitry Medvedev have emphasized that they want regime change in Kyiv.

And President Putin, when he met today with his top security cabinet, basically once again labeled the government in Kyiv an international terrorist organization, effectively. And he compared Ukrainian attacks on the Kerch bridge, as well as other what he claims are terrorist attacks, as indicating that Ukraine is up there now in the ranks of major international terrorist organizations. So we're seeing the Russian government try to delegitimize the government of Ukraine. They're not going to succeed in that. But it definitely demonstrates that they still want President Zelenskyy out. And they want a structurally deferential Ukraine to replace the current government of Ukraine, which is obviously independent.

INSKEEP: I guess it also emphasizes - doesn't it? - that there's no inclination from Putin to negotiate or back down or retreat from Ukraine. You can't give up against an enemy that you define the way that Putin is defining Ukraine.

WEISS: No. And at no point in this war, starting in 2014, have the Russians ever negotiated in good faith. So there are calls from various Western leaders and others around the world saying, oh, let's talk to Putin. Let's find out what he wants, maybe give him something, and he'll back off. I think that's a fallacious idea.

INSKEEP: Well, let me just ask, though, about this Russian retaliation. This is deadly. It's destructive. Civilians are dead. People are living amid destruction and in fear once again in Kyiv. So I don't want to say it has no effect. And yet, on some level, does it not indicate a degree of Russian impotence that all they can do is fling missiles from a distance into cities that they thought they were going to conquer months ago? And they're getting farther away. Their troops are even farther away rather than the reverse.

WEISS: Well, it's an interesting point, Steve. Russia, at the beginning phase of this war, had used precision-guided weapons like cruise missiles to attack various targets around Ukraine. And they had launched about 2,000 of those attacks. And then, at some point, they held off. And that was because they were running short of those kinds of precision-guided munitions. We're seeing today an indication that Russia is prepared to dip into its arsenal to attack what they claim are military targets. And as we see from Jason's reporting, they're not military targets. But at the same time, we need to be prepared for this war to go on for considerably longer than any of us would like. And for the Russians, what they have at their disposal right now is the ability to escalate the war either by attacking civilian infrastructure, critical infrastructure like dams or power plants, and to make life absolutely miserable for civilians who are in Ukraine today.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about further escalation. There is, of course, always the fear and the threat, the open threat by Russia, to use nuclear weapons. I want to try to think about that responsibly, if we can. What is a way to think about the risk here and how we can tell if the risk is getting greater?

WEISS: So if there's one thing the Russians are really good at, it's getting in our heads. And so when Vladimir Putin spoke on September 21 about mobilizing and calling up reservists, what he was doing there at the same time was a very loud set of saber-rattling and saying that all possible weapons are potentially at his disposal, including nuclear weapons. And we've seen that Western leaders, including President Biden in recent days, are quite worried about that possibility. The possibility may be low. I think he's definitely trying to get Western governments to try to put pressure on the Ukrainians to back off. And he's using this threat to intimidate Ukraine and its Western supporters. The scenarios for Russia to use nuclear weapons, though, I think, are much more tied to something related to his personal survival or the survival of the Russian government, rather than a way to kind of flip the script on the battlefield.

INSKEEP: Meaning that you think Putin would only use nuclear weapons if he thought the alternative was his own death?

WEISS: Or the destruction of the Russian state, yeah. I think those are the main scenarios that would require, in Putin's mind, the use of nuclear weapons. But he wants to create as much doubt and panic among Western leaders right now to put pressure for Ukraine to come to the bargaining table with him.

INSKEEP: Andrew Weiss of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Thanks very much. Really appreciate your insights.

WEISS: Thanks for having me, Steve.

INSKEEP: And we also heard from NPR's Jason Beaubien, who's in Kyiv today.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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