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The U.S. is accusing Russia of trying to create a pretext to invade Ukraine

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The U.S. is accusing Russia of trying to create a pretext to invade Ukraine. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki laid out the U.S. intelligence assessment yesterday.

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JEN PSAKI: We have information that indicates Russia's already prepositioned a group of operatives to conduct a false-flag operation in eastern Ukraine. The operatives are trained in urban warfare and in using explosives to carry out acts of sabotage against Russia's own proxy forces.

SIMON: This stark warning comes after a week of intense negotiations between NATO and Russia over the security crisis in Ukraine. NPR's diplomatic correspondent, Michele Kelemen, joins us. Michele, thanks for being with us.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Sure. Good morning.

SIMON: Russia put 100,000 troops on the border with Ukraine, presumably not just there to be tourists. And it doesn't sound like they're preparing to pack up and leave.

KELEMEN: No, I mean, they've shown no signs of easing tensions, no signs of moving those troops back to barracks. And the Russians are sticking by their demands. You know, what they want are written guarantees that Ukraine is never going to become part of NATO. They've also made other demands that the U.S. calls non-starters. The U.S. says it's willing to talk about some reciprocal steps that the U.S., NATO and Russia can all do together to ease tensions. But those talks take time, and the U.S. says they can't succeed as long as Russia has a gun to Ukraine's head. So the diplomacy seems really stuck. And as one official put it this week - this was a quote - "the drumbeat of war is sounding loud."

SIMON: Michele, what will the U.S. do if Russia attacks?

KELEMEN: Well, the Biden administration has been talking mostly about sanctions, tougher ones than the U.S. and its European partners have already imposed on Russia. The U.S. has been trying to help Ukraine with defensive weapons and training, though Biden's critics on Capitol Hill and in Washington think tanks say this administration is not doing enough fast enough on that front.

SIMON: Of course, if Ukraine were in NATO, Western allies would be obliged to defend it, but it's not. Can Ukraine expect troops from the U.S. or any Western nation?

KELEMEN: Well, Biden has pretty much ruled out sending troops, but you could see more training, which is already being done, and weapons or more NATO troops beefed up nearby. Ukrainian officials say that their military has come far from 2014. That's when Russia seized Crimea, and its proxies took over parts of eastern Ukraine. The Ukrainian president's chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, was at this event with the Atlantic Council yesterday. And he says that this time, Ukrainians are ready.

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ANDRIY YERMAK: Freedom - it's in our blood. Independence - it's our mentality. And I can say - the 100% of the guarantee - that if it's happened - I mean aggressions - the majority of the people in Ukraine will defend our country.

KELEMEN: And he calls NATO membership for Ukraine a life-or-death decision at this point.

SIMON: Michele, is there still chance for diplomacy, or does war seem inevitable?

KELEMEN: Well, you know, out of all these meetings that they've had over the past week, there were no tangible signs of progress, not even follow-on meetings announced. And, you know, in diplomacy, that's really not a good sign. The Ukrainians are proposing a summit - the U.S., Russia and Ukraine. Russia has shown no interest in that. And the big question that everyone has is what's Vladimir Putin's next move? No one can get into his head. And you know, this is a really uncomfortable position for everyone to be in, depending on that.

SIMON: NPR's Michele Kelemen, thanks so much.

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

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.