The Russians aren’t going to invade Ukraine, at least not this winter, though Canadian media headlines paint a different story. The prospect of an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine, and potentially a broader conflict between NATO and Russia have been discussed in the Globe and Mail, the CBC, Maclean’s, and CTV News to name but a few. This doomsday scenario is largely based on the build-up of Russian military forces close to the Ukrainian border revealed by satellite images and assessments by the U.S. intelligence community that Russia could invade as early as January 2022.
In my previous career as an Intelligence Analyst in the Canadian Armed Forces, I learned you can not base your intelligence assessment on a single indicator. Imagery of Russian forces assembling near the border is just one of the several indicators to consider in determining how likely a military invasion is this winter.
Several factors must be kept in mind if we want to have a more accurate analysis of current tensions, going beyond the sensationalist headlines of the mainstream media. Despite the authoritarian tendencies of Vladimir Putin, Russia is not a totalitarian state akin to North Korea, but rather a semi-authoritarian “managed democracy” a point well articulated in a recent article by Kathleen McKinnon Russian Elections: Authoritarianism or Limited Democracy? published by iAffairs Canada.
The Russian population does not live in a constant state of war readiness. A significant state-controlled media effort would be required to prepare the population and ensure public support for the invasion of Ukraine and the losses in blood and treasure the inevitable escalation of sanctions from the West as well as a large-scale military confrontation with Ukraine and possibly NATO that will have to be shouldered by the Russian population.
Broadcast and print media in Russia are largely state controlled and remain an effective tool in shaping Russian popular opinion. However, in Russia just like elsewhere, the traditional media has lost its preeminent position, especially among the younger and more online-savvy part of the population. Russians have free access to Western media online, some opposition media outlets still exist, and there is a vibrant, virtually uncensored Russian-language social media, such as Telegram and VKontakte (known as VK).
A major indicator of Vladimir Putin’s intention to invade Ukraine would be an escalation of war rhetoric by the Russian media. For example, prior to the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russian state media was entirely dominated by its coverage of events in Ukraine, portraying the Euromaidan Revolution in Kiev as an anti-Russian, Western backed coup d’état by radical nationalists and neo-Nazis. Russian citizens were subjected to warnings about the dangers faced by Russian-speaking Ukrainians in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Furthermore, in 2014, plans to deploy to Ukraine, and the subsequent presence of Russian troops inside Ukraine surfaced on social media, posted by individual members of the Russian military.
As a native Russian speaker, I routinely read and watch Russian media and offer the following observation: Russian media coverage from November to December 2021 is not dominated by Ukraine or any foreign policy issues for that matter. The media is mostly focused on COVID19, vaccine rollouts, and the economy. Tensions with NATO and the situation in Ukraine are mentioned but mostly to mock Western media coverage about the possibility that Russia might invade Ukraine, or to emphasize the need to de-escalate through diplomacy.
Russian financial markets are performing relatively well, with no signs of investors panicking and preparing for the repercussions that will surely follow any new large-scale Russian intervention in Ukraine. Fears of new sanctions, cancellation of natural gas pipeline projects such as Nord Stream II or Russian disconnection from the global financial payments system SWIFT are not apparent in observable financial metrics.
However, the Russian military build-up might be contingency planning for such an escalation rather than an intent to invade. In addition, in recent years rapid deployments of Russian forces to various regions has been a major feature of testing its operational readiness in the overall effort by Russia to upgrade and modernize its military capabilities.
In recent years, Ukraine has also been upgrading and modernizing its military capabilities, acquiring armed drones and modern man-portable anti-tank missiles. It is possible that Kiev has been encouraged by the success recently achieved by Azerbaijan in its re-capture of territories held by the Armenians in a disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region using those same weapons, and more importantly, by Moscow’s timid response. Moscow allowed the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia to run its course and the settlement returned a lot of disputed territories to Baku, despite Armenia’s membership in the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a military alliance led by Russia.
Given the lack of Russian media messaging preparing the population for war, and the relative “business as usual” attitude in Russian financial markets, it is unlikely that Putin intends to initiate hostilities against Ukraine in the near future. A more plausible explanation of the Russian build-up is that Putin wants to signal his intention to intervene should Ukraine attempt to re-capture territory seized by pro-Russian separatists.
Rather than engaging in sensationalist reporting and hysterics, we should all take a step back and let diplomacy run its course before jumping to conclusions. The smallest of miscalculations could lead us all down a very dark path. When tensions are high, panic is never the best response.
Egor Evsikov has an MA in War Studies from the Royal Military College of Canada and a Law degree from the University of Ottawa. He is a veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces having served as an Intelligence Analyst and is an expert in Eurasian affairs. Egor Evsikov’s research interests include Canadian and Russian military history and current security issues in Eurasia.