Western statements about an “imminent” Russian invasion of Ukraine have been a sudden departure from the last eight years, when western officials’ feelings about Russia’s war on Ukraine ranged from “concerned” to “deeply concerned.” U.S. intelligence services have even specified a timeframe for when they believe the attack will occur: this week.
Russia first began amassing troops and weaponry around Ukraine in the spring of 2021. It drew some back during the summer, but by late October the buildup began again - and this time in greater numbers.
Since January, defense experts and western politicians have been sounding the alarm bells, warning the Kremlin has massed enough troops and materiel to launch a major military attack on Ukraine. And as Russian warships blockaded the Ukrainian Black Sea coast over the last week, western politicians held a series of crisis talks with Ukraine and Russia in a bid to prevent what they believe could be a large-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Over the weekend, some western embassies pre-emptively evacuated their staff from Kyiv. The BBC reported that over a dozen embassies told their citizens in Ukraine to leave the country “while commercial flights were still available.” The United States and UK were first, and others like Israel and Germany quickly followed them.
Yet Ukrainians, including the Ukrainian authorities, have said they feel sidelined and perplexed by the West’s sudden and intense engagement in a war that has been ongoing for eight years. On top of that, they say that the Western statements are working to create panic that could play into the hands of Russian President Vladimir Putin by destabilizing Ukraine internally.
Putting the Kremlin on the back foot
On Sunday, Jake Sullivan, the U.S. national security advisor, told CNN “We’re not going to give Russia the opportunity to conduct a surprise here, to spring something on Ukraine or the world.”
Western international relations experts speaking to NV said that while the embassy evacuations are most likely a reflection of lessons learned from Afghanistan, the unprecedented Western rhetoric about an invasion is part of a strategy to deter Russia from attacking Ukraine. The West, according to the experts, is trying to get ahead of Russian President Vladimir Putin and disrupt his plans.
“What we’re seeing from the United Kingdom and the United States in particular is a strategy of deterrence through declassification,” says Nina Jankowicz, a fellow at the Wilson Center and author of a book on information warfare. “They are looking at intelligence which they consider highly credible in order to get ahead of Russian moves, whether those moves are in the information space, or broadly connective, or on the ground.”
“I think this is a response and reaction to 2014 when the West was largely caught off guard,” says Jankowicz. “I think the strategy is a little bit of a gamble but it’s a worthwhile gamble.”
The West’s strategy of deterrence, Jankowicz points out, means that they want to make the event that the intelligence is predicting, not happen. The worst-case scenario in this strategy, according to Jankowicz, is that it leads people to doubt Western intelligence services. But if the plan deters an invasion, she says, it is still a win.
“The best-case scenario, and I do think this is happening to some extent, is that the Kremlin is dissuaded from the activity that it was planning to take and Western audiences are a bit more educated about the narratives coming out of the Kremlin,” says Jankowicz.
Jankowicz notes that Ukrainians are not the intended audience of this declassification and deterrence strategy, rather the Kremlin itself is the primary audience, followed by the Western public.
A report published on February 13 by the Conflict Intelligence Team, an NGO which collects and analyzes open-source information about military conflicts, stated that “If, as many believe, all these actions are a bluff, then it is a particularly good (and quite expensive) bluff, since it is indistinguishable from preparations for a real large-scale offensive.”
A former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine and Brookings fellow, Steven Pifer, told NV that the U.S. is making their intelligence assessments public to put pressure on the Kremlin and make it harder for Russia to manufacture some pretext for attacking Ukraine.
“I believe it has been wise for Washington to assume the worst and do everything it can to deter and dissuade the Kremlin from attacking. The stark U.S. assessments have helped motivate U.S. allies in Europe,” says Pifer, referring to Europe's hardened stance against Russia and military support to Ukraine.
High stakes gamble?
Despite daily warnings, the forecasted Russian attack has yet to happen - leaving the West, and the U.S. in particular, only saying "soon". With each of their statements, panic in and around Ukraine grows.
Ukrainians are living in a surreal state of anxiety; not knowing how much to prepare and being forced to make individual judgements on whether they think the West’s intelligence is correct.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has publicly asked the West to stop issuing such statements. He has repeatedly told Ukrainians to remain calm. Zelensky has said the panic alone could destabilize the country internally and damage the economy.
In a live broadcast on Feb. 14, Zelensky also asked the West to share their intelligence – indicating his frustration with the West’s approach to Ukrainians in the crisis.
“If you, or anyone else, has additional information regarding a 100% Russian invasion starting on the 16th, please forward that information to us,” Zelensky said.
Some international airlines have suspended flights and some businesses are relocating to western Ukraine. However, Andy Hunder, the head of the American Chamber of Commerce, told NV that most international businesses he is in touch with are staying put and opting instead to monitor the situation regularly.
Zelensky announced in a live broadcast that Feb. 16 will be a national “Day of Unity” in Ukraine - the same day that Der Spiegel reported the CIA considers Russia could invade.
On that day, said Zelensky, the Ukrainian national anthem will be played across the country and the Ukrainian state flag will be raised on buildings. The Ukrainian presidential administration also announced plans for an information platform to inform people about the security situation, and efforts to strengthen Ukraine’s defenses.
While Western policy makers may feel they are pursuing the right strategy, like Zelensky, Ukrainians are struggling to understand Western intentions and question whether the West’s strategy will work to their benefit.
Serhiy Garmash, a Ukrainian expert who has represented Ukraine at the Minsk peace talks, told NV that Ukraine has become a pawn in a showdown between the world’s superpowers.
“By escalating the situation around Ukraine, the Americans have won the consolidation of the West under their flag,” says Garmash. “They are demonstrating this unity not only to Moscow, but also to Beijing. The West appears to be indifferent to the fate of ordinary Ukrainians.”
However, Garmash recognizes that the West’s new approach has resulted in some gains for Ukraine, including greater European solidarity against Russian aggression.
“Over the past few months, we have received more weapons than in the previous eight years of war,” said Garmash. “Together, this reduces the possibility of Kyiv returning to Moscow's control, and, accordingly, strengthens the U.S. position on the Eastern European flank. That is, to a large extent, the interests of the United States -- strengthening its position in NATO and in Europe in general -- and Ukraine coincide.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has insisted that diplomacy is the only way forward, but Russia has yet to withdraw its military forces. Indeed, despite the Russian Defense Ministry announcing on Feb. 15 that some units were being withdrawn from the border and returning to their home base, fresh commercial satellite imagery showed attack helicopters and warplanes had arrived at airbases close to Ukraine’s borders – typically a sign of an imminent attack.
Meanwhile, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was off to Moscow for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Feb. 15 following his meeting with Zelensky in Kyiv on Feb. 14, where he told the Ukrainian president that his visit comes during “very serious times.”
Serious times indeed. But after weeks of tension, warnings, threats, accusations and counter accusations, there is a feeling in Ukraine and beyond that matters are now coming to a head. The fate of Ukraine, and whether the West’s information gamble has paid off, could be known even in the next few days.