SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Tensions are high in eastern Europe as the world watches the developing situation in Ukraine, where some fear an invasion by Russian forces is imminent.

With more than 100,000 Russian troops amassed along the border with Ukraine, KELOLAND News spoke with U.S. Senator Mike Rounds, who serves on the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees.

What is happening with Ukraine and Russia

Rounds did not paint an overly optimistic picture of the situation as of Wednesday morning.

“Mr. Putin wants Ukraine back as a Soviet satellite,” said Rounds, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin. “He wants them under his control.”

Rounds says that at this moment in time Putin sees an opportunity to seize this control, and is weighing this desire against the potential consequences of a military invasion. “He’s questioning whether or not the United States has the resolve to actually stand up to him in eastern Europe — he’s testing the [Biden] administration.”

Putin is also testing NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization that the U.S. is a part of. “He wanted to find out whether NATO was going to be strong, or whether or not we would fold,” Rounds said.

“He doesn’t want body bags going back to mothers in Russia.”

Sen. Mike Rounds

Rounds says that Putin has found that Ukrainians want their own country, and that NATO is willing to assist the Ukrainians in defense.

This defensive support is important, according to Rounds. [NATO support] makes it a little more expensive for [Putin] to attack, both in terms of the amount of damage that could be done to his equipment, and the number of Russian soldiers that could be lost in this battle. He doesn’t want body bags going back to mothers in Russia.”

Rounds paints a picture of a standoff between Russia, seeking to exert control over its neighbor, and NATO, looking to limit the expansion of Russian power over another sovereign nation.

The involvement with NATO has been a point of conflict in what may at first look like a mere border dispute.

Ukraine is not a NATO member, but there has been discussion for some time of the country joining the organization, much to the displeasure of Russia.

Russia is not a member of NATO, and the organization cut off all cooperation with Russia following the 2014 annexation of Crimea. Russia views the potential inclusion of former Soviet states like Ukraine in NATO as a threat and has in the past threatened military action against expansion of the organization.

The fear for some is that if Ukraine were admitted into NATO, other member states would be obligated under Article 5 to come to the defense of Ukraine in the event of a conflict with Russia, potentially sparking a much larger conflict.

Rounds does not believe that Ukraine will be joining NATO any time soon, but says that Russia’s actions should not be the deciding reason.

“I do not believe that the entry of Ukraine into NATO is anything in the near future, but more importantly,” said Rounds “we can’t allow Russia to have a veto over who could get into NATO in the future. NATO membership is decided by NATO and a sovereign country that may want to apply — we simply can’t allow Mr. Putin to have the ability to veto membership in NATO.”

Will Russia invade Ukraine

To many, the likelihood of an invasion seems high. Rounds is among those who feel that is the case.

“[Putin] has already started, in our opinion, cyber-attacks that would precede any actual kinetic attack on [Ukraine]. We’re in a really precarious time, and it could be a matter of hours or a matter of days before this finally comes to a head,” Rounds said.

But what happens when it does come to a head? Rounds says the answer is likely an invasion.

Jacob Newton: You seem to be implying that an invasion may be likely — do you think Russia will invade?

Rounds: We deal in probabilities — and the probabilities of an attack are extremely extremely high, and that belief has not changed in the last week. We still believe that the probability of an invasion is still extremely high. Mr. Putin has the ability to change his mind. There is still a possibility that he might change his mind, but all indications are that he is locked and loaded, ready to go and continues to move in more closely to the border of Ukraine with his forces. So, while there’s a chance that an invasion may not occur, all indications that he continues to prepare for a very significant invasion, and he’s kept all of his options open with regard to invading from the north, from the south, by sea or directly from the east or all of the above — we still believe that the probability of that invasion is still very, very high.”

Adding to the tension is the idea that Putin has only a limited amount of time in which he can carry out an invasion. “This is very soft ground; marshy ground,” said Rounds, referring to the infamous ‘mud season’ in which the soft, fertile soil of Ukraine turns to a viscous, gooey sludge. “He’s got a limited number of weeks to actually make the attack if he decides to use his heavy tanks.”

But Rounds says mud isn’t the only thing that has Putin on the clock.

“There’s another piece to that,” he said. “He can only hold these troops in a position to attack for a limited amount of time — they lose their sharpness if they’re just sitting in a position of being ready for an attack for an extended period of time.”

The other issue Rounds point to is the speed at which an invasion would need to be accomplished. “He doesn’t want his tanks to go in and sit there and not be able to move. If we were to get in and get caught up, or have to maintain that group for an extended period of time based upon resistance, then they could very well become sitting ducks.”

What happens if Russia invades Ukraine

In the event of a full scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia, Rounds says that U.S. soldiers will not be sent into the country. “We do not have a defensive agreement set up with Ukraine,” said Rounds. “They are not part of NATO — we will not be sending American troops into harms way in Ukraine. That’s not part of any battle plan right now that I’m aware of.”

Instead, Rounds said that Russia will face economic consequences in the event of an invasion. “You will see significant economic sanctions on Mr. Putin who is a very wealthy man, on his family, on his allies in Russia; the oligarchs that are making a lot of money right now because Mr. Putin keeps them in power.”

Overall, Rounds says he supports the Biden administration in its efforts to oppose Russian intervention in Ukraine, and says he thinks they are on the right track. This was a sentiment echoed by Sen. John Thune as well, who gave credit to the Biden Administration for threatening sanctions on Putin’s pipeline. “That would be very economically costly to the Russians,” he said.

The implications of an invasion by Russia could extend beyond NATO issues as well, and into the territory of nuclear development.

Rounds pointed to the signing of the Budapest Memorandum in 1994, where Russia agreed to accept the sovereign boundaries of Ukraine in a joint agreement signed by Russia, Ukraine, the United States and Great Britain. “Mr. Putin has simply decided to change his mind,” said Rounds, also pointing out the fact that Ukraine agreed with the Budapest Memorandum to give up their nuclear weapons. “He wouldn’t be attacking them right now if they still had those nuclear weapons.”

This point was also brought up by Brian Bengs, a former military attorney and Democrat candidate for U.S. Senate, who says he was in Ukraine a few months after Russia took over Crimea in 2014. 

“[Ukraine gave away something that would prevent a Russian incursion today,” Bengs said. “It’s going to have a long term impact in terms of keeping the nuclear genie in the bottle as long as possible and discouraging countries to not get them. Ukraine had nuclear weapons and now they’re subject to a nuclear weapon state taking them over because they can.”

Asked how Russia should be viewed by the American people, as an enemy or an ally, Rounds called them an adversary.

“[The Russian people] are patriotic, just like Americans,” Rounds began, speaking positively of the individual citizens of the country. “We want to have good relations with Russia — these are good people at heart, but they right now have a dictator, Mr. Putin, that has decided that he wants to re-expand and get back some of the land which was lost when the Soviet Union was taken apart.”