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‘Putin is afraid of his own people,’ U.S. Military Academy professor says

Robert Person, U.S. Military Academy Associate Professor of International Relations, joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss the objectives of Russian President Putin, the ceasefire negotiations with Ukrainian President Zelenskyy, and potential support from EU and NATO if the conflict escalates.

Video Transcript

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ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Welcome back, everybody. Russia has stepped up its assault on Ukraine, now targeting civilian areas in the capital of Kyiv to demoralize the Ukrainian resistance. A United Nations agency reports more than 100 civilian deaths, but said the actual number of casualties could be much higher. Joining me now is Robert Person, Associate Professor of International Relations at the US Military Academy at West Point.

Professor, thanks so much for being with us. We know that President Putin would have us believe that his motivation for invading Ukraine is that the country was taking steps to become a member of NATO. I know you wrote an article recently for the Journal of Democracy, debunking that theory. What do you believe is moving Putin? What is he truly afraid of?

ROBERT PERSON: I think, first and foremost, Putin is afraid of his own people. I think his number one objective is and always has been to retain his hold on power. I think he's also threatened by democracy in the countries that surround him. Because those countries, countries like Ukraine, that have managed to develop a vibrant thriving democracy in Russia's shadow, set an example for his own countrymen-- an example that threatens him. And so, I think we have seen his position harden and grow ever more extreme, as those countries have attempted to break away and set their own course in democratic Western European politics.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Cease fire negotiations are expected to resume in the coming days. I don't even know if Ukraine NATO membership is on the table anymore. But if Ukraine were to tell Putin that is off the table, we absolutely will not try to join NATO, would that be enough to have him pull out?

ROBERT PERSON: I think it's hard to predict right now certainly what Putin is thinking and what he is planning. I should mention that these are all my personal views. They don't represent official policy of the government. But my sense is that really from day one, and going much farther back, Putin's objective in Ukraine has been regime change. Again, he cannot tolerate the idea of Ukraine leaving Russia's orbit and orienting itself towards the West.

And so, I think his objective has been to go in, attempt to encircle Kyiv, as we are seeing that drive right now, and ultimately force the Zelensky government out of power through violent means if necessary. So, at this point, I'm not sure that this conflict can necessarily be resolved by taking NATO membership off the table or Ukraine's cooperation with the United States off the table. I think Putin ultimately wants much, much more than that. And we'll see how far he's willing to go to get it.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Ukraine's President Zelensky applied for Ukraine to be part of the European Union. The last time the EU welcomed a new member was Croatia, right. That was back in 2013, and it took them about a decade of negotiations. Is that even realistic? Might the EU actually fast track Ukraine?

ROBERT PERSON: I'm not sure it's realistic in the short-term. Again, it's a very lengthy process. It's a very technical process to bring the national laws and regulations and standards of an aspirant member in line with EU requirements. Now, that's a process that has begun with Ukraine signing an association agreement with the European Union, which happened under President Petro Poroshenko a few years back. So, they have been moving in that direction. But it really would be an extraordinary and unprecedented move for the European Union to sort of waive that process or accelerate it to bring Ukraine into the block right now.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Mhm. Professor, there were reports that the EU would supply $0.5 billion of arms, including some fighter jets, to Ukraine. There was a report today-- a reporter from Politico, who's on the ground there, said that Europe will now not transfer fighter planes to Ukraine. Why do you think the about-face? And what are the implications there?

ROBERT PERSON: I think, you know, we do have to be concerned about some escalation risk, obviously. The West, NATO, our European partners, are putting extraordinary pressure on Russia right now through a variety of means-- economically, and through the direct military support of the Ukrainian military to include weapons sales. I suspect that there may be a sense-- and here this is just me sort of drawing some inferences and speculating. But I suspect that there may be a sense that a move of providing much more significant weaponry, like fighter jets, could be taken as an escalatory move that might risk dragging a NATO ally more directly into the conflict than we really want to contemplate right now.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Like Poland, I know, which was actually thinking about giving some of those arms, and is a NATO member. President Biden yesterday, when asked by a reporter, said that Americans should not fear Russia's invasion of Ukraine developing into a global nuclear war, despite the fact that Moscow is putting its nuclear forces on high alert after those harsh US sanctions. What are your thoughts on that? I'm sure we'll hear more from the president tonight during a State of the Union.

ROBERT PERSON: Yeah, and certainly the president will have, I think, some important updates and perspectives to share with the country and with the world tonight. So, we'll keep our eyes on that. I mean, I think, fundamentally, Putin he is a risk taker. But he, is in my assessment, still a rational actor. He is obviously gambling. I think that gambling has largely failed in Ukraine right now, but he's been extraordinarily consistent in his pursuit of his political goals in Ukraine over the last really nearly decade plus.

And so, I think that these threats that we're hearing certainly are part of an escalatory pattern. He hopes that Ukraine supporters internationally will be afraid and will back down. But I think ultimately, he understands that direct military conflict between Russia and between the NATO alliance would unleash devastation that we can hardly imagine. And so, I do believe in the very powerful deterrent effect of that threat and the deterrent effect of a united NATO alliance.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Well, one thing we have learned, I think, is that never underestimate Vladimir Putin. Robert Person, US Military Academy Associate Professor of International Relations, Thanks so much for your insights today. I want to get you all another check of the markets with a live picture of the big board right now.

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