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Former army general on how the U.S. could back a Ukranian insurgency against Russia

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

If - and it is still an if - Russia does soon attack Ukraine, how hard could Ukraine fight back? That is a question that involves the U.S., which has no boots on the ground but which has been helping to arm Ukraine, everything from ammunition to anti-tank javelin missiles. A bipartisan group of U.S. senators who visited Ukraine this week is promising more on that front. Here's Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, briefing reporters after talks in Kyiv and delivering a warning to Vladimir Putin.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: We will impose crippling economic sanctions. But more important, we will give the people of Ukraine the arms - lethal arms - they need to defend their lives and livelihoods.

KELLY: I want to bring in retired U.S. Army Brigadier General Peter Zwack. He served as U.S. defense attache to Russia. General, welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

PETER ZWACK: Thank you for having me, Mary Louise.

KELLY: When we hear the senator there talking about giving the people of Ukraine lethal arms, what's he talking about? What's on the table?

ZWACK: Well, I think that we're talking about trying to take the edge or deter a Russian mostly conventional ground offensive. And for that, the Ukrainians would need more javelin anti-tank missiles and - that are very, very effective and that will knock out, if you will, attacking tanks and armored vehicles. And they need Stingers. They need to be able to knock down, threaten Russian air support. One reason...

KELLY: Stingers, we should mention, this is another type of missile.

ZWACK: Yes, a Stinger missile. And the Russians were not able in 2014 - when I was in Russia at the time when their first invasion - to fly their red star jets over Ukraine because they weren't officially there. If they come, they're all going to come. And that first fight on the ground is going to be very, very important.

KELLY: But you've just touched on what I suppose is the central question here. You have a Russian military that is vastly bigger, better resourced than Ukraine's. No matter what arms the U.S. might send, would it be enough to change the outcome here?

ZWACK: Well, there are two outcomes here. It will be costly. Ukrainians are going to fight. Their modern military and their sense of who they are were really, really born in the battles of 2014 and 2015.

KELLY: It sounds like what you're saying is, yes, Russia's military is more powerful. Yes, they could go all in and they might win. But arming Ukraine makes - perhaps changes the calculus as to whether that's a good idea and would make it a much higher price that Russia would have to pay in terms of pictures running on - what? - domestic TV of Russian soldiers coming home in body bags.

ZWACK: Right. And it isn't just when we talk about U.S. when I think the real Russian underestimate or miscalculations is the fact that we are pretty lockstep with Europe, with NATO and the European Union and including neutrals. And the Russians, I think, are at the edge of a precipice. They know they can probably get initial advantage, but it gets harder and harder and harder.

The other challenge I think the Russians have is they've kind of boxed themselves into a diplomatic cul-de-sac. And they have to find a way to extract themselves from this situation or they double down with all the risks that go with that.

KELLY: As you know, the U.S. has a long history of funneling arms overseas to intervene in conflicts where the U.S. does not have boots on the ground and with results that aren't always what the U.S. intended. Are there past - lessons from the past that might be instructive here?

ZWACK: Well, I think that the first point is this is Eastern Europe. This is really part of, if you will, the overall aggregate of which we in Europe believe in the trans-Atlantic. Ideally, the successful negotiation between Russia and Ukraine to figure out a way is through Kyiv and Moscow. It's proven it's not possible. And that's why we are and European allies are involved in all of this.

What's the alternative? Do we just let them get invaded or do we make the cost so high on the ground-level military but also the diplomatic and the economic? And you mentioned that in the past. This is a huge, consequential decision for Russia. Russia is huge but, in the end, not that big when you get into their military and the issues that they have to deal with internally. So they have to be very careful or this blows back on them in a really, really bad way. So, yes, the Ukrainians deserve to have defensible lethal weapons.

KELLY: Just to make this a little bit personal, I mentioned you used to serve as America's defense attache at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, including in 2014, when Russia invaded Crimea. What feels the same? What feels different to you about this current situation?

ZWACK: We - during the early phases, certainly with Crimea and early Donbas, eastern Ukraine, there was a lot of fog of war. And before that, I'd call fog of peace. We just didn't know exactly what was going on. We were getting reports and strange guys in uniform and disinformation is flying.

The Russians have been utterly unambiguous about this. They have basically paraded over 100,000 troops, and that's just the tip of it. There would be things coming in behind them. But that is along the border, which is coercion in the classical sense. And then they're doing all the things we're reading about, the cyber and discussions of - so it's very clear they're there.

KELLY: And your argument would be Ukraine deserves a chance to fight.

ZWACK: And they deserve a chance to fight, Mary Louise. Yes, they do.

KELLY: General Peter Zwack is a global fellow at the Wilson Center's Kennan Institute. Thank you.

ZWACK: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.