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Russia blames Ukrainian drones for explosions at two air bases within the country

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The war in Ukraine is spreading beyond its borders. Russia's defense ministry reported explosions at two air bases inside Russia and Russia blames Ukrainian drones. Ukraine is not confirming if they're responsible. We've called Max Bergmann, a former U.S. diplomat and expert on European and Russian security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Welcome to the program.

MAX BERGMANN: Thanks for having me, Steve.

INSKEEP: Are you pretty confident that Ukraine really is responsible for these attacks?

BERGMANN: Yeah, I think this is - it's pretty clear Ukraine is responsible. There's been some pretty - I think maybe not direct statements by Ukrainian officials, but really hinting that - of their involvement. And this is something we've also seen from Ukraine before. They have struck at Russian territory previously. But I think what makes this very different is the depth at which they were able to reach inside of Russia, striking a base on the Volga River, which is hundreds of miles from Ukraine.

INSKEEP: What exactly did the Ukrainians strike at that great distance, and what is its relevance to this war?

BERGMANN: Well, this was a strategic bomber air base that Russia was using to strike Ukrainian territory. And it - you know, this - the significance of this is that Russia - this is one of their most strategic bases. This is where they perhaps can have nuclear weapons as well. And to be able to strike so deep into Russian territory really calls into question Russian air defense, Russia's security procedures. And it demonstrates to Russia that Ukraine is - has the ability to put them under threat and will - I think significantly, it will cause some real issues within the Russian military.

INSKEEP: Well, let me think this through, though. Traditionally, this would be a normal part of a war. You don't give the enemy a safe haven. Ukraine naturally would try to strike on the enemy's territory, the enemy's turf, if they can. But this is a nuclear-armed power with thousands of nuclear weapons that presumably would take extreme offense to strikes on its own territory. Haven't the U.S. and its allies tried to discourage this very thing?

BERGMANN: Well, the U.S. has, and I think the U.S. has made clear that any weapons that we provide, that we don't want those to be used against Russian territory, which is why this is significant, that this is - appears to be an organic weapon developed by the Ukrainians themselves or retrofitted essentially. And I think, you know, what it sort of demonstrates is that Russia's nuclear blustering earlier in the conflict has proved rather hollow.

There's been a number of world leaders in addition to Western leaders in India and China that have also advocated or pushed Moscow to tone down the nuclear rhetoric. And that right now is the one way that Russia has to escalate this conflict, because it is - it has escalated. It is striking Ukrainian civilian infrastructure repeatedly and constantly. So Russia's ability to escalate would, I think, would be nuclear. And I don't think there's - I think that would have tremendous costs for Russia both internationally and I think domestically within its own public. I don't think there's domestic support within Russia to go to such an extreme step.

INSKEEP: I think you're telling me you're not terrified about a Russian nuclear strike. The possibility is out there, but you don't think it's really - they would see it in their interest yet.

BERGMANN: No, I think that's right. And I think what we've seen is that this isn't the first time that Ukraine has struck Russian territory, which didn't elicit a nuclear response. And we have to remember, what is Ukraine targeting? They're targeting a military target, unlike Russia, which is targeting civilian infrastructure. So I think this is very much inbounds of what we would consider - you know, maybe not rules of the game, but of a degree of, well, this is what an adversary is going to do in response to them being pummeled by missiles.

INSKEEP: I think you mentioned larger potential effects on Russia's military. Is there some broader strategic effect, that it would affect the morale or the approach or the thinking of Russia's military here?

BERGMANN: Yeah, I think Russia will have to examine its air defenses. Has it moved most of its air defenses into Ukraine? Does it need to create more depth? Does it need to shift how its forces are arrayed to prevent their destruction should there be an attack? And it will also simply be really uncomfortable for a lot of senior military officials inside the Kremlin that will be called to account. How could this happen? How could you allow this to occur? So I think it will add to sort of the infighting.

INSKEEP: Max Bergmann of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, thanks for your insights - really appreciate it.

BERGMANN: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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