Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday.

Pool Sputnik Kremlin/AP

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Pool Sputnik Kremlin/AP

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday.

Pool Sputnik Kremlin/AP

The first group of Russian warships passed through the Turkish straits into the Black Sea on Tuesday on their way to waters near Ukraine.

The ships continue the buildup of forces by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has stationed more than 100,000 troops near Ukraine’s borders in recent weeks.

“Ukraine is basically surrounded,” said retired Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

He joined Morning Edition to analyze what Putin’s naval movements signal the conflict’s next turn could be. Listen here.

The three warships are designed for beach landings and can carry heavy tanks. Russia insists the ships are part of a planned naval exercise, but Mullen says that probably isn’t true.

“For the Russians to have forces in the Black Sea, ready to go ashore in a key port like Sevastopol, makes a lot of sense if in fact he is going to pull the trigger,” Mullen says.

Putin’s current movements seem to mirror the steps he took to invade Georgia in 2008 — when he staged a military exercise that turned into an invasion — but it isn’t clear whether Putin will do the same with Ukraine, Mullen says..

Russia has a robust history of modern aggression toward its neighbor countries, but Mullen notes what’s different now is the international response. President Biden and NATO have said that significant financial consequences will hit Russia if Putin were to invade Ukraine, including potentially canceling the Nord Stream 2 Russia-to-Germany gas pipeline, which would cost Russia economic and and regional power.

What Putin may ultimately be angling for is a regime change in Ukraine, says Mullen.

World leaders continue to pursue diplomatic meetings to try to calm the crisis.

French President Emanuel Macron spoke one-on-one with Putin during a five-hour meeting Monday. The meeting, although long and much talked about online for its comically large table, hasn’t yielded any tangible successes so far, reports NPR’s Eleanor Beardsley.

Even as NATO warns of severe repercussions and world leaders meet with Putin directly, whether Russia will invade is unknown.

“I don’t know if anyone really knows if he’s going to go in, other than Putin himself,” Mullen says.

This story originally appeared in the Morning Edition live blog.

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