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Week in politics: U.S. troops on alert at Russia-Ukraine border; Breyer retiring

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

More than 100,000 Russian soldiers stand along the Ukrainian border. NATO countries are moving defensive weapons to the front, and the U.S. has put 8,500 troops on high alert. NPR senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving joins us. Ron, thanks so much for being with us.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: The U.S. this week delivered a written response to Russia's demands, but the Kremlin says that its major concern, that, essentially, NATO is just getting too close to Russia's border, was left unaddressed. What do you make of that?

ELVING: There are at least two ways to read this week's developments. The more hopeful read is that Putin wants an off ramp. He doesn't want this confrontation with a NATO alliance that seems awakened and somewhat empowered in this moment. He may want to back off and try again later. That's the hopeful read. The other read would be that Putin is still bent on invading and wants a pretext. So he denies any intent to invade, and then, lo and behold, something happens that Putin deems provocative. And suddenly, his incursion is cast as some sort of self-defense. Now, that may seem transparent and even absurd, but we have seen it before.

SIMON: Ron, let me ask you to apply your powers of political analysis to Vladimir Putin. What are his goals in deploying so many troops along the border of a neighboring state that, after all, has not threatened Russia?

ELVING: Ukraine itself is no threat to Russia in the usual military sense, but to Putin, Ukraine poses a real threat nonetheless because if Ukraine can break away from the sphere of Russian influence, if Ukraine can have a free democracy and a growing economy with less corruption than it had in the Soviet era or the more recent past, that is a fundamental threat to Putin's regime and Putin's way of doing business. So he's not afraid of Ukraine's weapons or soldiers. He fears what the success of an independent and democratic Ukraine may mean to other countries that were once under the Soviet umbrella or behind the Iron Curtain, as we used to say, Scott, including, ultimately, Russia itself.

SIMON: Let's step back to the United States for a moment. Of course, Justice Stephen Breyer retiring from the Supreme Court. President Biden quickly announced he will fulfill his promise to nominate a Black female justice within the next four weeks. Does that timeline hold together for you?

ELVING: Yes, it makes sense. It's certainly nowhere near as fast as we raced to the confirmation of the last Supreme Court appointee of President Trump just before the election in 2020. But first, a few words about Breyer. He was appointed by Bill Clinton, and Breyer was anything but a firebrand. He was seen then and seen since as a relatively moderate liberal likely to give the court some balance, counter the more highly partisan appeals from either end of the court's spectrum. And he also turned out to be an intellectual leader, a thoughtful and institutional jurist who wanted to defend the court's longtime role as a moderating centrist institution devoted to the rule of law.

Now, as for the new nominee, Biden made the pledge to name a Black woman in the same season when he said that his vice president would be a woman from a community of color. Let's remember there has never been even one African American woman on the high court, despite there being many qualified candidates over the years. And let's remember, too, that no demographic category of voters was more loyal to Biden in 2020 than Black women in the primaries and the general.

SIMON: There are plenty of qualified Black women from whom the president could choose. Two women said to be prominently in the running - Ketanji Brown Jackson and J. Michelle Childs.

ELVING: Yes, Jackson was recently confirmed to the Federal Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, sometimes known as the little Supreme Court, last stop for several current justices before coming to the Supremes. Jackson was confirmed 53-47, which means she had a little support from across the aisle. Childs is also a federal judge and also now a nominee for the appeals court level. She is a favorite of South Carolina Representative James Clyburn. He's very close to Joe Biden, as well.

SIMON: NPR's Ron Elving, thanks so much for being with us.

ELVING: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.