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After a week of failed diplomatic efforts, tension between Russia and the U.S. builds

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The U.S. is issuing new warnings about Russia's military intentions in Ukraine, saying the Kremlin may seek to provoke conflict after a week of diplomatic efforts fail to ease tensions over the hundred thousand Russian troops now near Ukraine's border. NPR's Charles Maynes joins us on the line now from Moscow to tell us more. Charles, thanks so much for joining us.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Happy to do it.

MARTIN: So the White House came out with strong statements Friday warning that Russia may be planning what it called a false flag operation against Ukraine. Could you just tell us more about what they're talking about, and is there any reaction from the Kremlin?

MAYNES: White House officials say Russia prepositioned operatives to stage a possible attack against Moscow's own forces or perhaps its allies in East Ukraine, all with the goal of giving the Kremlin a pretext for war against Ukraine. Now, the U.S. clearly is issuing this information to try and keep it from happening. Moreover, the U.S. isn't providing any evidence, which was seized upon by Russia. The Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, called the idea of a premeditated attack, unfounded, said it wasn't confirmed by anything. And whether it's true or not, we don't know, but the U.S. has certainly expressed concern all along about with the White House calls the Russian playbook - in other words, trying to provoke conflict rather than pursue diplomacy.

MARTIN: Well, about that diplomacy. We saw that there were hours and hours of talks in European capitals that really seemed to go nowhere. What can you tell us about that? Like, why the impasse?

MAYNES: You know, Russia and the U.S. together with its allies are really talking about different things. You know, the West says it wants to see this de-escalation of Russian troops along Ukraine's border. That's what we've heard so much about. Russia calls the idea of a pullback from its own territory absurd and denies it has any plans to attack. And yet Russia is clearly using a credible threat of force to negotiate what it sees as these historical injustices coming out of the end of the Cold War. So Russia wants a ban on NATO membership for Ukraine. That's part of it. But it also wants this rollback of NATO to where it was before these former communist nations like Poland, like Czech Republic entered into the alliance in the late 1990s. And if you listen to the language coming out of Russia's top negotiato - this is Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov - It doesn't seem like there's a lot to negotiate.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SERGEY RYABKOV: We need ironclad, waterproof, bulletproof, legally binding guarantees, not assurances, not safeguards - guarantees.

MAYNES: You know, and, of course, the U.S. and NATO have called the Russian demands mostly nonstarters. So the question now is, what happens when and if Russia doesn't get what it wants?

MARTIN: Do you have a sense of how this is seen by Russians themselves? I mean, is there a sense of the country on the brink, as it were?

MAYNES: You know, it kind of feels like this is something no one thought was possible over the fall but is slowly becoming a reality, you know, with President Vladimir Putin now talking about a possible military technical response. That's what he's vowed so far without elaborating. The U.S. also argues there's been this massive uptick in propaganda in Russia over the past several months. And, you know, yes and no, I think. I mean, there's always a lot of propaganda surrounding Ukraine anyway. But these stories of the Russian buildup were initially reported by Western media, and then Russian media came in to look into it. And some of that, of course, is part of this kind of pro-Kremlin propagandist wall. But, you know, mudding all that message, on Friday, we saw the arrest of Russia's - by Russia security services at members of this Ransomware Evil hacking group. And that was at the request of the U.S. So you can understand if Russians are left scratching their heads a bit.

MARTIN: So I want to go back to this idea of Russia creating a pretext for war. What are we hearing from the Ukrainians?

MAYNES: First of all, they're coming to grips with this cyberattack on Friday that took out some of their government websites. It seems now not to have done as much damage as it first feared. Meanwhile, Ukraine's military intelligence says it has captured intercepts about a possible plot by Russia to stage a faked attack against Russian troops in a breakaway region of Moldova. That's to the south of Ukraine. The plan here essentially is to attack Russian troops stationed at a weapons depot near the border and then blame it on Ukrainian forces, you know, opening up the possibility of a wider Russian incursion. Now, the U.S. has said it's willing to give weapons to help Ukraine carry out a protracted guerrilla campaign if it comes to a Russian attack. And that's the wider concern here about this whole week of failed diplomacy, that it was, you know, always designed to fail and open a path for Russia to claim, you know, well, we tried negotiating and now all there is left to do is to fight.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow. Charles, thank you so much.

MAYNES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.