22

A follow-up to previously closed question.

As of Feb 13th, there's still no Russian invasion into Ukraine, however, some countries are retracting their air traffic to Ukraine and even de-leasing airplanes of Ukrainian airlines.

What's the informational basis that the relevant parties base their actions on? What facts would lead to such severe actions?

I can see two options there:

  • The actions are mostly triggered by each other in cascading fashion (one party decides to play safe and that fact is used as a signal for other parties to implement more severe restrictions and so on) - a bank run situation (a country C will stop air traffic/evacuate its citizens since countries A and B already did either of those)
  • These actions are based on input of facts about Russian invasion which are independent of cascading reactions and would exist/be sufficiently compelling even in the absence of those reactions (a country C will stop air traffic/evacuate its citizens even in the absence of any actions from A and B)

Can you reason for one of these or maybe there's a third option?

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  • See also this post and answers therein: politics.stackexchange.com/q/70052/28554 Feb 13 at 15:09
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    @TimurShtatland if you have an explanation as to why 2022 is different (from 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, etc) then I'd say vote to reopen this question and write the answer there.
    – Allure
    Feb 13 at 23:44
  • @Allure I could not find [vote to reopen] button, but no matter. I asked politely the moderators to intervene and left a detailed comment. Feb 14 at 2:58
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    @TimurShtatland Just FYI, you can't see the close/reopen link because that privilege requires 500 reputation points on this site.
    – TooTea
    Feb 14 at 15:47
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    Just as a general comment, it will always be very difficult to find out what is the basis of any decision. People do not tend to write down their reasoning and sources of information extensively, at least not publicly and even if they would do, they could lie or even lie to themselves. So what would a good answer here have to include? Is this question maybe asking for an estimation of the probability of a Russian invasion in disguise? That would be a really tough and somewhat speculative task.
    – Trilarion
    Feb 17 at 7:44

5 Answers 5

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+100

Position

Multiple sources, ranging as far and wide as NY Times, FOX News, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, The Guardian, Times Of Israel, Japan Times, and Al Jazeera, have confirmed the NATO governments' claims that Russia has been increasing its deployment of hardware and personal on the Ukrainian border. This map shows a recent understanding of where they are:

enter image description here

Formation

Satellite imagery shows that the hardware and the units are in a tight deployment formation. This is consistent with a preparation for an offensive action rather than a defensive border-defense action.

enter image description here

Tight formations make rich targets of opportunity if they are attacked, so they are generally terrible for defense.

But tight formations shorten supply lines and create close proximity for inter-unit communications, enabling coordinated actions. This makes them more suited for offensive actions.

There is no offensive deployment of Ukrainian troops. So there is no reason to believe that this is a defensive action. In fact Ukraine's army is seen to dig-in in a spread-out formation and digging trenches, which is also more consistent with a defensive formation. Which yet again dispenses any potential argument that Russia has any need for a defensive posture.

Scope

The recent border deployment exceeds 100,000 troops. This is 10 times the number of troops Russia used to invade Georgia.

Relation to the eastern Ukraine

The Russia-armed military of DNR numbers 30,000 soldiers. This DNR source actually boasts about the fact that close to 400,000 DNR residents now hold Russian passports.

This would appear to indicate that Russia has consolidated its power in the region controlled by the break-away armed forces of the eastern Ukraine. This makes Russian resources available for a new round of invasions. Which answers the question "why now?"

What is unclear

Despite the massive Russian build up, it is not perfectly clear if the military is at a high level of readiness for an invasion or if it is merely a show of force. High level of readiness is very expensive. Everything has to be maintained in working order and ready to go. Such an expense cannot be sustained for a long time. It is usually only taken right before an invasion.

In the past month Russia has deployed blood banks close to the border. This is an action consistent with expectation of large casualties in a near future.

It is, nevertheless, possible that this is merely a show of force. However, if this large deployment is put in a trigger-ready position, it cannot stay that way for too long without attacking.

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    That picture on formation was actually taken on November 9th 2021. If there are over 100,000 soldiers, then where did they sleep all this time? Wouldn't you expect more facilities (barracks or tents) with such a large deployment? Have any pictures of those since surfaced? Edit: some more recent photos here.
    – JJJ
    Feb 13 at 23:19
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    @JJJ I can't put all the pictures in. The one I added is just a demonstration of what a tight formation is. Such tight deployments make for easy targets and would not be used defensively.
    – grovkin
    Feb 13 at 23:33
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    If it's just a demonstration, then it should be labelled as such. Feb 14 at 2:26
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation about military tight formations and their purpose has been moved to chat.
    – Philipp
    Feb 16 at 17:41
  • @grovkin Welcome back. This answer above is something else... You may also be amused by this: politics.meta.stackexchange.com/q/6157/28554 . To paraphrase a joke, I am not asking where grovkin is, I am just asking where are my 100 points. But seriously, missed your answers. Mar 27 at 2:06
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Various governments are informing us that they have intelligence information, yet they decline to reveal "sources and methods." That is not uncommon -- if the government isn't trusted, why elect it? The NATO allies are sharing (some) information, but qualifiers in the estimate might be lost in transmission (compare the Curveball affair).

The Western public got burned in this regard by their own governments in the 2003 Iraq war. But more recent memories are the 2014 Russian lies regarding the polite green men, so Russian denials are ignored. After all, Russia has annexed part of the Ukraine and it is supporting violent separatists in another part.

The Russian viewpoint is that Crimea is Russian, and that the separatists are freedom fighters. Both sides accuse each other of violating the Minsk agreement, the West accuses Russia of violating the Budapest memorandum, and Russia accuses the West of breaking verbal promises regarding NATO enlargement. At some point one has do decide whom to believe.

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    "At some point one has do decide whom to believe." Yes, but what has it to do with a possible imminent invasion? One could probably decide to believe none of them both really and still believe an invasion will soon take place or not take place.
    – Trilarion
    Feb 15 at 15:18
  • @Trilarion, the OP wondered if that was airlines stampeding each other, but my point is that they're listening to their respective governments, not to each other. They are possibly somewhat more inclined to believe their own government over the Russians ...
    – o.m.
    Feb 15 at 17:16
  • Okay understand the logic of your argumentation. But still, couldn't they also think for themselves or take into account their own government and other governments and other airlines. If they truly have no information themselves than they may really chase each other.
    – Trilarion
    Feb 15 at 20:24
  • @Trilarion, do you truly expect airlines to have their own spy networks? They have to trust governments. And of course governments in NATO and EU, and some beyond that, talk to each other. When one government tells another friendly government what they know, there is usually an agreement to keep the details secret.
    – o.m.
    Feb 16 at 5:36
  • I basically thought that airline CEOs would assemble and weigh facts regarding their operations somewhat independently. I wouldn't call it spy network, maybe more operational data analyst center. At least for big airlines.
    – Trilarion
    Feb 16 at 7:56
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I beg to differ: I think there are no actual plans to invade, but the perceived risk of a war is great publicity: both for Putin who demonstrates Russians just how great of a power their country is, and for European/US politicians who get the opportunity to show their talents in keeping a bloody dictator in check.

I'm convinced that Ukraine is way too big a fish for Russia to swallow. It may look tiny on the map compared to Russia, but its population is half of that of Germany and almost 30% of that of Russia. Ukrainian army recently got military aid from NATO. Plus, in case of a war, Ukrainians will be fighting for their homeland, while Russian soldiers will be "just doing their job" on an invasion mission abroad; you just can't expect them to have the same spirit. Truth is, if Russia tries to invade Ukraine, there is a real risk to be simply beaten up.

Airline companies and the like, on the other hand, don't need to have an independent opinion on the matter, they'll just follow whatever recommendations the ministry of foreign affairs of their country gives. They cannot be blamed for being too careful, but if there's another MH-17-like incident, the victims' relatives will almost certainly sue the airline for negligence.

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    I upvoted this good answer (thx!), but I disagree on the margins. I speculate that (a) China is demanding Russia-US hostilities w/o a major war in UA, but (b) small scale invasions that do not attempt to roll over and hold UA are still possible, esp from the East and South. Note that (b) is consistent w/ history of the Putin regime MO. Feb 14 at 14:17
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    There is very unlikly to be an invasion, but even if tallking about a hypothetical posibility, it could be only for the eastern part of Ukraine.
    – convert
    Feb 14 at 14:33
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    "I'm convinced that Ukraine is way too big a fish for Russia to swallow." And invasion doesn't have to have that as a goal. 2014 was just a bite out of Ukraine and Russia did it. This could probably happen again, maybe a land corridor up to Crimea might be something achievable.
    – Trilarion
    Feb 15 at 15:20
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    Your answer didn't age well, and it's been posted just 8 days ago. Feb 22 at 7:09
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    @EricDuminil True, but after 9 more days it appears that I have better estimated the Ukraine's defensive potential than Putin's military advisers did. Mar 3 at 21:34
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As others have commented, it's extremely hard to know exactly what's going on, given how many untrustworthy/unreliable actors there are making claims around this. For example, despite recent media reports to the contrary, the current troop build up by Russia isn't new or unprecedented. Last spring, there were similar claims that Russia had moved over 100,000 troops to the Ukrainian border, but according to the thinktank CSIS:

there were almost 87,000 Russian troops stationed there already. This was the direct result of Russian decisions made in 2014–16 to create a permanent military infrastructure near the border with Ukraine and in occupied Crimea.

The article goes on talk to about how many of these troops are actually headquartered in places like Voronezh i.e. they hadn't suddenly been moved to the border. As for the rest of the troops above that 87,000, it was claimed that they were there for various training reasons, similar to how there are now "about 30,000 troops taking part in military exercises in Belarus" (according to the BBC).

Note, this doesn't prove that because 87,000 + 30,000 > 100,000, that then there's no reason to be skeptical of Russian troop movements. For example, any training exercise could be a pretext in preparation for an invasion. Nor does the lack of an invasion last time prove that there won't be one this time: perhaps Putin was testing the waters to see how Biden might react after he came into office, as the CSIS article outlines, and this is the next stage of that. And even definitive proof that the troop build-up isn't for invasion purposes wouldn't necessarily mean the Russian government's actions are entirely innocent, since it could be a show of force to pressure the US/Ukraine/EU vis-à-vis future diplomacy.

That said, it does mean the actual evidence for the most hyperbolic claims at the moment is thinner than it seems. One has to remember that in a different media environment, it would be very easy to misleadingly portray Russia's entire foreign policy as entirely virtuous, just as it would be very easy for an alternative media narrative to portray Biden 24/7 as an evil supervillain for freezing the assets of the Afghan State, causing a famine. So both unevidenced statements by the US government, and defensive statements by the Russia government, should be viewed critically. And that critical eye should be cast not just on the alleged facts, but also the motives/values that could be used to interpret those facts (which are never in a vacuum). One can view Putin's philosophy as entirely colonial - an ethnonationalist desire to unite Russian people under his flag and bully smaller countries like Ukraine that stand in the way. Or one can view the same set of (alleged) facts of Russian pressure and see Putin as someone willing to engage in realpolitik to bring Ukraine to the diplomatic table of Minsk II and thereby bring peace to Donbas, on the Russian border. Those aren't the only options, and likewise it would be a fallacy to presume truth must lie somewhere in the middle. But no doubt entire essays could and have been written on answering this question, so I'll leave it there.

The most tangible piece of evidence against the Russian government's narrative at the moment in my view is the decision to pull out embassy staff from Kyiv. The reasoning given wasn't particularly convincing and it is suspicious. However, this was after Western countries already pulled their staff out, so won't have been the informational basis those governments were acting on. If there is some more concrete evidence that predates this, it's classified and hasn't even been shared with the Ukrainian authorities. That doesn't mean it doesn't exist, but it does limit what an answer on a website such as this can provide, and does make me wonder how confident the US government itself is in their claims, if their motives are actually to protect the Ukrainian people.

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  • "Biden 24/7 as an evil supervillain for freezing the assets of the Afghan State" <- I'd say that's more a matter of judgement than portrayal. I mean, the freezing of assets is an undisputed fact, while the size Russian forces around Ukraine is disputed. Anyway, +1 and see also my recent related question.
    – einpoklum
    Feb 14 at 21:02
  • @einpoklum oh the asset freeze is definitely a fact, I meant more that, rightly or wrongly, that freeze can be interpreted differently by different people, both in terms of its reasoning and its morality - and that how we decide questions like that also impacts our ability to adjudicate future fact claims involving the same actors
    – ajd138
    Feb 15 at 20:18
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There are multiple conflicting sources of information that may influence such decisions. The overwhelming evidence is in favor of a possibility that a further invasion by the Russian regime may take place.

Russia under the current authoritarian rule of President Putin has already invaded Ukrainian territory both directly (Crimea) and indirectly, through the actions of the puppet regime (Donbass). Putin has invaded Georgia and Moldova in the past. Russia has made operations of the Azov sea (essentially converted into the Russian inner lake) and Black sea Ukrainian ports difficult if not impossible. This is in essence a naval blockade, without announcing it as such.

The military, diplomatic and political analysts (see below, but there are more examples that I can add) agree that the continuation of the Russian invasion cannot be ruled out. It follows from common sense that flight insurance for commercial flights over a possible military zone may be prohibitively costly. Hence, conversion of Ukraine into a no-flight zone for some operators.

And the recent memories of evacuation of the the US and pro-US civilians from Afghanistan in 2021 are alive and well. This suggests that the current ruling elites in many countries have little appetite for a repeat of such a disaster. Hence the thinning out or the outright evacuation of the diplomatic staff.

REFERENCES:

“In the event of a military threat from Russia, the decision to close Ukraine’s airspace will be made immediately by the top military leadership, taking into account the situation and risks,” Lt. Col. Yuriy Ignat, head of the Ukrainian air force’s Public Relations Service, told Coffee or Die Magazine in an exclusive interview.

“The air force of the armed forces of Ukraine monitors the airspace over the territory of Ukraine and beyond on the territory of neighboring states,” Ignat said, adding that Ukrainian air force commanders “work in close cooperation” with civilian air traffic control to prevent the targeting of nonmilitary aircraft such as commercial airliners.

“Passenger planes will be identified and cannot be considered Russian combat military aircraft,” Ignat said. “However, Russia’s provocative actions in the airspace cannot be ruled out. Such scenarios are also calculated and modeled by the Ukrainian military.”

(With Ukraine’s Air Defenses Ready for Russian Attack, Civilian Aircraft Cautiously Keep Flying. By Nolan Peterson. Coffee or Die. December 28, 2021: https://coffeeordie.com/ukraine-air-defenses/ )


The second phase of Russia’s highly anticipated bilateral military exercise with Belarus, called Union Courage ’22, kicked off on February 10. But much more than reaffirming the relationship between the two countries, it is a useful cover for the deployment of Russian high-end military equipment and an opportunity to rehearse missions applicable to a large-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine.

While imperfect, the proliferation of commercial satellite imagery and hand-held photos and video have provided a surprisingly thorough look at Russia’s military build-up. Its Ministry of Defense (MoD) has also provided insights into the types of missions these joint forces have engaged in—which allows experts to extrapolate the missions the Kremlin believes are important and to assess how they intend to execute combined arms operations in the event of a further invasion of Ukraine.

Although the execution phase of the exercise has only just begun, there is already plenty to learn from the types of forces deployed, the actions they have conducted so far, and the subjects Russia has chosen to publicize. Based on these observations, it is clear that Russia is focusing on air superiority, close air support, long-range fires, intelligence collection, and combat sustainment. The bottom line

Russia has already deployed the forces necessary to initiate a large-scale invasion of Ukraine. It is using the Union Courage exercise to posture and prepare those forces to conduct offensive operations against Ukraine, should they be directed to invade. Based on observed deployments and training events, it is apparent that in the event of a further invasion, Russia intends to rapidly establish air superiority over Ukraine and will initiate its mechanized offensive with precision long-range fire (both from the ground and from aircraft). And it will be prepared to support that ground offensive with overwhelming support from ground-attack aircraft.

( Russia’s joint exercise with Belarus reveals what a Ukraine invasion would look like. By Tyson Wetzel. February 11, 2022. New Atlanticist: https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/russias-joint-exercise-with-belarus-reveals-what-a-ukraine-invasion-would-look-like/ )

Videos:

Search for these, sort by most recent first:

Ambassador Michael McFaul (Professor at Stanford): https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=michael+mcfaul

Vitaly Portnikov (political analyst), in Ukrainian and Russian languages: https://www.youtube.com/c/portnikov

Viktor Nebozhenko (political analyst), in Ukrainian and Russian languages: https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=%D0%BD%D0%B5%D0%B1%D0%BE%D0%B6%D0%B5%D0%BD%D0%BA%D0%BE+%D0%B2%D0%B8%D0%BA%D1%82%D0%BE%D1%80


[Edit Feb 19 2022]

Putin recently announced on the state-controlled TV that Ukraine has engaged in "genocide" in Donbass (new!). This is a lie, & is also unprecedented. It begs the question: why wait, why not stop the "genocide" by intervening, militarily if needed, to protect the ethnic Russians + the 1000s of the newly minted Russian citizens in Donbass? Et voila, casus belli created! Need more? Putin introduced a near-blockade of civilian ports of Ukraine in the Azov & the Black seas (new!). And Putin-supported separatists shelled preschools and schools in Ukraine today, Feb 17, 2022 (new!).

References:

https://www.npr.org/2022/02/09/1079534750/ukraine-russia-warships-black-sea
https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/ukrainealert/black-sea-blockade-ukraine-accuses-russia-of-major-maritime-escalation/
https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-60340232
Plus a wall of references here:
https://www.google.com/search?q=russia+ukraine+black+sea

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    "Cannot be ruled out" is a very weak point if we are talking about halting air travel
    – alamar
    Feb 13 at 14:27
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    @alamar I would take the word of the insurance company on that. Ask them please about insuring a plane similar to the one the Russian puppet regime shot down years ago over Ukraine. In these words. This week. Please! And let us know here their answer. Thanks. Sorry for making anyone make this inquiry, but that’s how it goes IRL. Feb 13 at 14:31
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    But none of that references can be seen as overwhelming evidence.
    – convert
    Feb 13 at 17:53
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    This does not even attempt to answer the actual question, it only states how authoritarian the current Russian government is, and it alleges that they will treat civilians the same way the Taliban did. This is not what the question asked.
    – vsz
    Feb 14 at 5:40
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    @alamar Since Russian forces (or at least pro-Russian forces armed, equipped and trained by Russia and operating in conjunction with Russian military personnel) shot down MH17, the burden of proof falls the other way. We have overwhelming evidence that Russian (or Russian-aligned) forces have already shot down a civilian aircraft operating near a warzone. So unless we can actively rule out Russian forces repeating this, we must assume they would be prepared to do the same again.
    – Graham
    Feb 14 at 11:57

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