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Why Americans should care about the Russia-Ukraine standoff

A Ukrainian military forces serviceman exits from a tank parked in a base near Klugino-Bashkirivka village, in the Kharkiv region on January 31, 2022.
Sergey Bobok
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AFP via Getty Images
A Ukrainian military forces serviceman exits from a tank parked in a base near Klugino-Bashkirivka village, in the Kharkiv region on January 31, 2022.

The standoff between Ukraine and Russia is about more than just those two countries. It's about global security and an attempt to "rewrite rules on which the world is based," says Ukraine's minister of foreign affairs.

And he adds that's precisely why Americans should care.

Dmytro Kuleba estimates that Russia has between 100,000 and 130,000 troops amassed at Ukraine's border and is capable of mounting an invasion at short notice.

Ukraine and the United States are threatening crippling sanctions if it does. Russian President Vladimir Putin is demanding that Ukraine never be allowed to join NATO.

While military forces are marshaling on both sides of the border, diplomatic efforts continue in an effort to defuse the situation.

President Biden told reporters Monday that the United States was engaged in "nonstop diplomacy" but added that "we are ready no matter what happens."

At a tense meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Monday, representatives for Russia, Ukraine and the United States traded barbs but didn't come to any agreement on a path forward.

Kuleba said Ukrainian officials have been busy preparing against any invasion but have deliberately gone about it quietly to avoid sparking panic in the country and hurting the economy.

Still, he said, the threat was real. And it went beyond just Ukraine's own interests.

Ukraine's Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba says the country is defending the current world order.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Ukraine's Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba says the country is defending the current world order.

"If Russia succeeds here in Ukraine, that will send a clear message to everyone who wants to rewrite rules on which the world is based, that this is possible," he told NPR. "That the United States and the democratic coalition led by the United States are incapable to maintain the current world order. That they are weak. And if you behave in a bold, aggressive way, you will eventually succeed."

"So, for all Americans, all I can say is that Ukraine is fighting this war for eight years. We have never requested American boots here on the ground. We always said we are fighting this war. This is our land. These are our people.

"We don't need your boots on the ground, but help us to fight this war diplomatically, militarily. And we will defend the current world order led by the United States and other democratic countries in this part of the world."

It's a sentiment echoed by two visiting U.S. congressmen — Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., and Mark Green, R-Tenn. — who are both members of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee and are in Kyiv, Ukraine's capital.

When asked last week what they would tell their constituents back home about America's interest in the conflict, Meeks got straight to the point.

"Democracy is at stake," he told NPR. "If we allow Vladimir Putin to come into a sovereign territory and threaten its democracy or take its democracy, then we are allowing others to do the same, which in turn, reverberates on us. ... We've got to unite with one message to say that's not going to happen."

Green agreed, adding that the United States was compelled to "work to a diplomatic solution here as quickly and as effectively as we can."

Civilians hold wooden replicas of Kalashnikov rifles, as they take part in a training session at an abandoned factory in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv on January 30, 2022.
Sergei Supinsky / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Civilians hold wooden replicas of Kalashnikov rifles as they take part in a training session at an abandoned factory in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv on Sunday.

As for how likely an invasion was, Kuleba said the Russian troop buildup was happening slowly and steadily, but there were "no indicators that they are ready to launch an offensive operation."

At the U.N. Security Council meeting on Monday, Russia's representative Vassily Nebenzia also denied there were any plans to invade and that Russian troops in Belarus were there only for regular exercises.

The comments were met with skepticism from others in attendance, including the U.K.'s deputy representative to the U.N., James Kariuki, who noted similar claims were made in 2014 before Russia annexed Crimea.

For his part, Ukraine's Kuleba says he still sees room for diplomacy and that warnings of an imminent invasion had circled for months without any action yet.

"When the first messages or the first alert was made about the potential Russian military operation against Ukraine last autumn, we were initially told that it may happen [at] the end of the year," he said. "Then the updated intel information was about January. Now we are on the last day of January, and the only conclusion we can draw is that diplomacy works."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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.