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Did Putin miscalculate the military challenge Russia would face in Ukraine?

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Let's bring in Sergey Radchenko. He has written extensively on nuclear history and on Russia's foreign and security policies. He's also a professor of Russian history at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies based in Europe. He joins us now from London. Thank you so much.

SERGEY RADCHENKO: Good morning to you.

MARTIN: A Russian attack on this nuclear plant in Ukraine has European leaders on alert, understandably. I wonder if you could start off by just telling us what it feels like to be in Europe right now.

RADCHENKO: Well, you know, obviously, everybody in Europe is nervous. We are not sure where this conflict is going. There's potential for escalation. I find myself in a particularly tricky position because I am a Russian academic who works in the West. And I have ties - I'm partially of Ukrainian heritage, so I have ties to both sides in this conflict. And in personal terms, it's absolutely traumatic. You know, it is like waking up in the morning and realizing that somebody you know closely has died or that you have helped kill them. So that is the kind of feeling that I've go - I've been going with for days. And, of course, you know, I as a historian and a scholar, I am also aware of just how badly this can all turn out. I'm a Cold War historian. We've seen dangerous moments during the Cold War, and there's every potential here for escalation. And we must do - we must keep very calm and just make sure that we take the right ladder out of this, you know, the right door to de-escalate.

MARTIN: Right. Let's focus in on this nuclear attack for the moment. I mean, Russia is already facing an onslaught of sanctions. This particular attack is likely going to generate an even stronger response from the U.S. and the EU. Based on what you know of Putin, is he willing to absorb any risk right now in order to take Ukraine?

RADCHENKO: So this is just another development. Of course, there's an - it's an outrageous development - you know, firefight at a nuclear power plant. How much worse can it get? But we have to remember that Putin has started an atrocious war against Ukraine. He - I think he expected to get off lightly. He did not expect the kind of consolidated response that we have seen in the West in terms of sanctions targeting Russia. And Russian economy is already in the meltdown. Nor did he expect such a response from the Ukrainian people. He did not expect this kind of resistance.

But, of course, now that he is in this situation, it seems that he's determined to push the bitter end and to overwhelm Ukraine. And we have to remember that he has the capacity to do that. I mean, Russia has a massive military machine that, you know, dwarfs anything that Ukraine can possibly put up against it. So I think we're in the early - still in the early days of this very horrendous, unfortunate war. And I'm worried that Putin is prepared to go much further and unleash even the worst bloodbath in Ukraine than what we have seen already.

MARTIN: What do you make, though, of these reports that Russian troops are running out of gas, that they don't have food? This big convoy on its way to Kyiv allegedly has stalled. It doesn't seem very organized in some respects.

RADCHENKO: Yeah, I mean, obviously, we've - you know, any military operation like this is bound to run into some logistical problems. And we have seen the Russians facing problems, you know, even abandoning their vehicles, facing resistance. You know, the situation, though, remains - the Russians are edging further in Ukraine. They are making gains. They are taking over cities, encircling cities. They just took over a nuclear plant, as we have just heard. So on the whole, I think it's too early to say how this war will turn out in the coming days and weeks. What I'm worried about is that we're just in the early stages of it.

MARTIN: There have been reports of Russian soldiers saying that they expected to be welcomed with open arms by Ukrainians who are desperate for help. Do many in Russia believe that?

RADCHENKO: There is a large section of the population that unfortunately believes that. That unfortunately buys into this narrative. And, of course, to make things easier for them and makes it - making it easier to believe this narrative is the fact that the Russians have been - the Russian government has been clamping down on foreign media and foreign sources of information. So they have just shut down BBC Russian service, Deutsche Welle and some other foreign media, which basically leaves many Russians with just internal sources of information, internal narrative that presents this as some kind of a war of liberation against Nazis.

And, you know, I'm afraid to say - and I'm deeply saddened to say that as a Russian - that so many people in Russia actually believe this nonsense and buy into it. Now, I don't say that everybody does. And I will say that liberal intelligentsia, so-called liberal intelligentsia in Moscow and St. Petersburg are, by and large - abhor - they're aghast. They're horrified by what's going on. But, you know, now that the Russian government has unleashed repressions and are promising long prison terms for speaking up against this war, I wonder how many of those - of my liberal friends in Moscow and St. Petersburg will quietly say to themselves, you know, maybe it's time to be quiet? I don't know. It's a scary situation for many of them.

MARTIN: The Russian Defense Ministry made its first acknowledgment of Russian troops that have been killed in Ukraine. It said almost 500. Ukraine claims there have been over 5,000 - so big discrepancy there. Does the fact that Russians are dying in Ukraine - does that change public opinion in Russia? And then does that have an effect on Putin?

RADCHENKO: It's hard to say what has an effect on Putin at this stage. Putin is sitting in his bunker, surrounded by very few trusted lieutenants who he may not necessarily even listen to. Putin is somebody who just listens to himself. And he's clearly not an economist because the consequences of this misadventure in Ukraine have been absolutely dire for the Russian economy. Russian economy has been thrown back years and perhaps decades with the sanctions that are not likely to go away. Now, there is a body count. There is, as you say, a major discrepancy, as always, in times of war. Different sides present different numbers. We have not yet seen the - we have not yet seen this translate into some sort of popular movement against Putin. And in general, I would say that the Russians - you know, they are kind of passive when it comes to this thing.

MARTIN: Just in a couple seconds, a lot of Russia watchers have been saying Putin is unhinged. He's different now. Do you agree with that? Or is this the same Putin?

RADCHENKO: You know, in a sense, it is the same Putin. And I think he's still a rational actor. We just need to understand his calculation of costs and benefits.

MARTIN: We so appreciate your time. Sergey Radchenko is a professor teaching Russian history and foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University. Thank you for your time and context this morning.

RADCHENKO: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.