Predicting world events is hard. It’s much easier to stay away from concrete predictions and instead stick to frightening hypotheticals, like “Warmongering Aliens From a Distant Star Could Enslave Us All.” Besides, saying something is going to happen rather than merely bringing up the fact that it could often leaves people looking foolish later on. And if there’s one thing any self-appointed authority hates, it’s looking like a moron in public.
But barring a major change in the next 24 hours or so, I think we might in theory be close to … ah, screw it. Russian troops are about to march on the rest of Ukraine, and I'm going to tell you what's making me so sure(ish).
1. Second-hand info from the Western intelligence community
While spooks themselves are reluctant to share intel with the public — they’re funny like that — they brief a lot of people who then interface with the public. Listening very, very carefully to people who have been debriefed can yield a surprising number of hints about what the intelligence community knows. Sound impossible? It's not — it’s just imprecise, difficult, and often misleading!
But it can also work. Some of the more notable examples of these second-hand intelligence clues were the remarks made last Sunday by NATO's supreme allied commander in Europe, General Philip Breedlove. He said that it appeared the Russians had massed enough of the right kinds of units with the right kind of equipment on the Ukraine border to make a 350-mile drive across Ukraine to Transnistria. Another example: an interview with the Polish Foreign Minister in which he mentions that Russian units have made the kinds of logistical preparations that would be indicators of an impending attack.
2. What certain members of the US Congress are saying
The intelligence community briefed members of Congress just before Russia went into Crimea, and the intelligence community's take then was that an invasion was unlikely because Russia hadn’t deployed any of its larger medical units or field hospitals. That was obviously wrong. But now some of those same members of Congress, who have been briefed and rebriefed several times since the invasion, have written a classified letter to the White House. An unclassified version of the letter indicates that they are quite concerned about a Russian invasion of Ukraine due to the intelligence they've been given. While there’s no way to know what the classified version of the letter says, it's a safe bet that it contains very significant additional info.
I hope I'm wrong about this — after all, neither Putin nor Obama are cc'ing me on emails.
As the misread of the Crimea situation indicates, assessments by the Western intelligence community are a lot less reliable than they once were. Ever since Edward Snowden decided to gift-wrap a big chunk of US intelligence and give it to Russia, the behaviors of things like, say, the Russian military — to take a completely random example — have been a lot harder for the West to figure out. Russia's newfound ability to foil enemy spooks is a big reason the invasion of Crimea took the West by surprise.
3. The tantalizing third-hand information that's seemingly everywhere
In a nutshell, this intel is a collection of snippets based on a method known as, “So there’s this guy, who knows this guy, who knows this other guy who said his cousin heard a thing about the Russians invading Ukraine.” Hell, I'm on a plane as I write this, and I just had a gentleman I’ve never met tell me that the Polish army is mobilizing its reserves.
But these sorts of whispers should be taken with a fist-sized grain of salt. Arguably just as, if not more, reliable than interpreting official reports is monitoring social media. There have been a lot of video clips seemingly showing Russian units — including tanks with mine-clearing equipment, which would certainly be invaluable during an invasion — moving toward Ukraine. However, the inability to confirm relevant details limits the ability to reach more confident conclusions about large-scale troop movements.
Even though it’s not possible to draw a detailed version of unit deployments, it is entirely fair to assume that there’s a whole lot of motion in the backfield. Analysts feel confident that there are at least 20,000 Russian soldiers on the border, which might be a bit thin for an invasion of the entire Ukraine. However, at the top end, those estimates go all the way up to at least 100,000 troops, which is a force to be reckoned with.
For weeks, rumors have been coming out of Ukraine suggesting that Russia has been infiltrating Spetsnaz (Russian Special Forces) soldiers into the area. Sending Special Forces in advance of an invasion for reconnaissance, sabotage, and disruption of communications has long been a part of Russian military doctrine. But these reports, from understandably paranoid Ukrainians, merit skepticism.
The information warfare being waged by Russia isn’t slowing down. Recently, Russia opened a hotline for Russians in Ukraine to call and report “ethnic cleansing” against Russian-speakers, further bolstering the case for protection of Russians in Ukraine. In his March 19 speech on the annexation of Crimea, Vladimir Putin spent a lot of time talking about how he views the relationship between Russia and Ukraine, no doubt in part to rile up Russians to get behind a potential invasion.
Putin also mentioned Banderists in western Ukraine, and their role in the current crisis. Banderists are the Ukrainians who fought against the Soviets in World War II and were led, in part, by Stepan Bandera. Those forces were pro-Nazi, anti-Semitic, fascists, and/or just anti-Stalinist nationalists, depending on whose propaganda you want to believe. Regardless, when Putin mentions Banderists, he’s trying to say fascists, by which he means Nazis. In Russia, the accusation of fascism is very powerful. It's a term that, when leveled against one's enemies in the right circumstances, could allow a politician to get away with almost anything.
I’m probably wrong about all of this. Or at least, I hope I am; after all, neither Putin nor Barack Obama are cc'ing me on emails. There are so very many ways to be incorrect when stupidly attempting to predict the future. It's possible this is all simply a bluff — could Putin simply be engaging in the traditional Russian game of “Scare the Crap Out of Countries West of Russia"?
Nah. Russia is about to invade Ukraine.