94

There must be some motive here that I can't understand. For one I can easily think of reasons why the US wouldn't want to make public the things that they know, if not for any other reason than to risk revealing how they know what they know. Other than that sometimes it's better to not let the "adversary" (for lack of a better term) know that you know the cards they are holding.

On the other hand I can think of reasons why you wouldn't want to keep making these kinds of announcements, like freaking out people in Ukraine. Wouldn't it be better to just tell the Ukrainian government what you know and let them decide how to handle the public relations in the matter?

It just seems very surreal, if you watch the mainstream news or listen to the President or other officials making statements they claim to know these very specific details but I can't figure out why we are hearing it from the US and no other source, or why we are hearing it from the US at all.

This seems like a multi-faceted question but really it comes down to why is the US specifically pumping out all these statements and claims about Russia/Ukraine in the first place? What could the possible motive be for the US?

1
  • Consider the value of keeping the populace informed. Given a choice between being upset ('freaked out') by knowing that an invasion was coming, allowing me and my family to plan for our safety, to fight or to flee, vs. being kept ignorant, I'll take the former. Feb 25 at 22:08

12 Answers 12

148

I think that the motivation is mostly to make it very hard for any Russian narrative to gain traction in the international public opinion, including in Russia.

From a political perspective, Russia needs a good reason to invade Ukraine, otherwise it will look as the clear aggressor to everybody. Without a casus belli, Russia would become a rogue state, lose its legitimacy on the international stage, and it would be very difficult for Putin's government to keep the support of the Russian population.

This is why Russian state media have been accusing the Ukrainian government of genocide, and this is why the US are trying to counter this narrative by exposing its fabrication. Preemptively exposing the Russian disinformation strategy undermines the efforts of Russian propaganda. The Russian government needs to disseminate quickly and broadly some very shocking news which justifies the invasion. In general, even if the disinformation is debunked eventually, it's always too little too late. But this strategy is much less effective if the disinformation is "defused" in advance by the US and their allies, since the shock effect doesn't work and people are much more suspicious. The constant reminder by the US that Russia has its army ready to strike also contributes to this purpose, since it implies that any "shocking event" triggering the war probably did not happen now by chance.

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    Comments deleted - if you’d like to write your own answer to this question, please do so in the answer box.
    – CDJB
    Feb 20 at 16:18
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    "lose its legitimacy on the international stage" - Russia still has legitimacy left to lose?
    – Vikki
    Feb 21 at 12:28
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    @Vikki pretty much yes. Russia has its rather strong fan-club of people leaning far-left (traditionally), people leaning far-right (a recent development), people simply ill-informed (an impressive majority everywhere even if not all of them Russian fans), politicians/leaders of various sorts, etc, etc... Russia did their homework in Georgia in 2008 and got a lot of international support back then.
    – fraxinus
    Feb 21 at 16:18
  • 3
    @fraxinus I think not many leftists have been fans of Russia since three decades ago.
    – Jasmijn
    Feb 21 at 23:06
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    @Vikki: I think in this case, Erwan is talking about legitimacy as a nation that other countries can engage in diplomacy / trade agreements with (e.g. oil and gas deals), not as a democracy or that its public claims about itself are realistic. Feb 21 at 23:39
99

This is fairly common political technique called 'poisoning the well'. The US is laying out all of the actions and steps that Russia has been taking — and some that they expect Russia will take if there is an invasion — thus making it extremely difficult for Russia to claim after the fact that an invasion was necessary as a response or reaction to something that occurred within Ukraine.

Putin has been carefully trying to craft a narrative that Russian-speaking peoples in eastern Ukraine are under some sort of existential threat, but knows that staging a bald-faced invasion would violate a number of international treaties and norms. It would be best for him politically if there were an international incident that would justify sending troops across the border (much as 9/11 became a justification for the US invasion of Afghanistan, albeit under shady logic). By carefully spelling out all of Russia's preparations and troop mobilizations, the US is undercutting Putin's 'justified response' narrative, effectively saying: "Why would Russia prepare so extensively for an as-yet-to-occur international incident?". Note that in the US invasion of Afghanistan, all of the preparations and mobilizations began after the trigger incident, and the US was quite public about its intentions, seeking international agreement and support. Russia, by contrast, has played its cards close to its chest: massing its forces without much comment, creating public misdirections about non-existent troop withdrawals, ginning up the potential of a genocide where no overt evidence of genocide exists.

Russia wants uncertainty and confusion over the nature of its actions, so that it can spin out ex post facto rationales and maintain some semblance of its international reputation. The US is doing its best to remove any uncertainty or confusion, so that any actual invasion will merely look like naked aggression on Russia's part.

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  • 'poisoning the well' wins it, such a common tactic in politics everywhere (go wave a nazi flag at any event you don't agree with for example) was a tough choice otherwise but I also thought this answer felt generally more neutral
    – MetaGuru
    Feb 23 at 22:43
  • "Putin has been carefully trying to craft a narrative..." For comparison, see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Himmler, Germany's propaganda attempting to justify the invasion of Poland in WWII.
    – Kyralessa
    Feb 27 at 16:05
35

I mostly agree with Ted and Erwan, but I would put it slightly differently. Say the US claims/warns/predicts that Russia will invade Ukraine on February 16th, as they did. Then there are three possible scenarios:

  • Russia does invade. It takes more reputation damage than it would do without the warning, as outlined by the other answers. This reputation damage translates into a higher Western unity for sanctions.
  • Russia never planned to invade. Russian reputation is tarnished in the eye of those who incorrectly think it was merely deterred from the invasion, and the US reputation is tarnished in the eye of those who consider the US a bully and self-serving liar.
  • Russia is deterred from a planned invasion by the prospect for higher reputation damage (as per bullet point 1). Again, Russian reputation is tarnished in the eye of those who correctly think it was merely deterred from the invasion, and the US reputation is tarnished in the eye of those who consider the US a bully.

Obviously the US decided that the possible reputation loss from being alarmist outweighs the damage of an invasion to the international system, and so takes steps to make the invasion less likely. Think of it as an insurance premium. On average, insurance costs more than the damage it covers. When you take insurance for something, you are certain to pay the premium, but the impact of a low-probability, high-damage event is reduced.

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    These are interesting points, but I fail to understand how the US would appear as a bully or would stand to suffer significant loss of reputation. Do you have citations or further evidence to suggest this? As I see it, America's reputational gamble will be staked on the effectiveness of any sanctions that may be imposed, not on whether it displays clairvoyance regarding Russia's intent to invade.
    – Beau
    Feb 19 at 16:15
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    @Beau, bullet points two and three assume no invasion and hence no sanctions. They differ in Russia's secret plans, not any observable behaviour. I would call the Chinese reaction to Russian complaints an example of the US reputation loss.
    – o.m.
    Feb 19 at 16:18
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    @Beau Consider klm123's answer. That viewpoint is not very rare globally, even though it is not common in western countries.
    – jpa
    Feb 19 at 17:58
  • @o.m.: Personally, I am somewhat skeptical that the US seriously cares about China's opinion one way or the other, unless China pairs that opinion with some sort of concrete action.
    – Kevin
    Feb 20 at 5:58
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    There's talk around here (in Western Europe) about whether the US is trying to prevent a war or trying to goad Russia into one. If this answer is correct, then there's clearly some reputation damage being done to the US by taking this path to avoid a war.
    – Erik
    Feb 20 at 20:26
13

Because it's very difficult to do a surprise attack, when someone has just announced what your surprise attack is going to be.

It's like the rabbit that spots a fox across a field. It sits bolt upright, looking straight at the fox. At that point, the fox knows it isn't going to succeed in a surprise attack on the rabbit.

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    In my personal experience, neither the fox nor the rabbit will directly look at the other in such situations.
    – M. Stern
    Feb 19 at 17:26
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    @M.Stern Partly because rabbits see most clearly to the sides, not straight ahead like humans.
    – jpa
    Feb 19 at 17:59
  • 2
    @M.Stern Maybe. The thing about rabbits and foxes may be apocryphal.
    – Simon B
    Feb 19 at 18:48
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    After the events of 2014, a new invasion can hardly be a surprise for either Ukraine or the rest of the world. I'm pretty sure the US is trying to make it clear that Russia was preparing the invasion before whatever excuse Putin finds to justify it, not to warn an unsuspecting rabbit about the fox. Feb 21 at 9:19
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    @JBentley the advantage of announcing it publicly is that not only do the Ukrainians get to see the US assessment of what Russia is doing, but the Russians now know that Ukraine knows.
    – Simon B
    Feb 21 at 10:39
12

That's not what the US is doing. Various US officials have announced what, in the estimate of the known sources, is likely to happen if nothing changes.

This is done in order to allow the affected parties to prepare for the dangerous eventualities and for the effecting parties to be aware that their actions are not going unnoticed.

Because of these announcements some will mitigate risks and some will course correct in the directions which have less harmful outcomes.

This may create the impression that the original "predictions" were wrong. But they were no more wrong than a passenger yelling "watch out" at a driver of his car, who doesn't see that he is about to run over a pedestrian. The driver has an opportunity to course correct and avoid a disaster.

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5

Such announcements are actually good publicity: the US is showing to everyone that they are involved in an international crisis and are trying to resolve it peacefully. I think it's nothing like insurance premium - looking at past deeds of Putin in Georgia and Ukraine one can hardly label the US to be "the boy who cried wolf", invasion warnings are justified even if there's no invasion in the end.

In fact, the US gets most reputational gains if the invasion doesn't happen: Biden gets to say he managed to keep Putin in check while he was in the White House. If the invasion does happen, the US will have to either confront Russia, or get the blame for not getting involved. I understand Ukrainian politicians are trying to show their loyalty to the US and expecting some sort of protection in return, and it's in the US' best interest that this protection doesn't involve actual warfare with casualties.

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  • This would mean the USA has to gain from this announcement if Russia doesn't invade and has to lose if it invades (compared to the case they haven't made this announcement)... so this would allege that the USA doesn't find the invasion likely, or they wouldn't have made the announcement.
    – vsz
    Feb 21 at 10:00
  • @vsz I wouldn't say that the US loses if Russia invades Ukraine. It's just the less desirable outcome that will force them to make a hard choice between getting involved in a conflict, and ignoring Ukraine in their hour of need. Frankly, an invasion would be catastrophic for both Russia and Ukraine, which is why I'm convinced it won't happen. Feb 21 at 15:42
  • 1
    Publicity, kind of: It's better to announce what they think will happen ahead of time, rather than saying "we had no idea" after it had happened.
    – U. Windl
    Mar 3 at 22:18
4

I'm not entirely certain, but I could think of a few reasons.

For one, likely generally transparency, especially with the American people. This is particularly important, should military action be necessary and/or taken. This transparency aids in keeping informed.

The other is to likely raise attention and give a platform in the international community to help deter Russia from taking those actions and aid in a strong negative sentiment towards Russia taking those actions.

I would imagine if they're doing it there is generally a good reason, or they at least have a good reason in mind. There is likely much more intelligence we are not aware of (naturally) and I would assume that is being shared privately with the necessary channels.

4

...why is the US specifically pumping out all these statements and claims about Russia/Ukraine in the first place?

Concentrating on that part only and given that the US predictions were quite accurate all the time, I guess that one factor was that the US was quite sure about what happened there. Given their intelligence information about the troops, positions and maybe even attack plans, they might have been almost sure that Russia seriously was preparing for attacking Ukraine.

And if you are so sure, why not make that knowledge public. The US seems to have gained a lot of credibility by their open communication during that period, even though it didn't change anything else.

Example:

On 18th of February the US president said that "We have reason to believe the Russian forces are planning and intend to attack Ukraine in the coming week, the coming days," and "We believe that they will target Ukraine's capital Kyiv — a city of 2.8 million innocent people." which is as far as I can see 100% accurate. Probably the intelligence information was good enough to deduct that with certainty.

3

It's propaganda as a preparation for actual war.

As such, it is not unlike the repetitive claims of presence of WMDs in Iraq, while Iraq was screaming to anyone who would listen to come and see for themselves,... which nobody did or got loud enough about.

Except for less than a decade of its existence, the United States has been in a continuous state of war with some nation or another. Practice makes perfect, as the saying goes. What actually is or is not happening in Ukraine, or what Russia is doing, is irrelevant.

The sole purpose of these allegations is to justify oncoming actions of the US itself. They are a means to an end and in themselves neither particularly diplomatic nor solution oriented.

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    @donjuedo If you dig into US warfare history, you will find a surprisingly consequent recurrence of tactics. BSing the US population into believing Saddam had WMDs is one of the most peaceful ways the US ever initiated a war. Events like Pearl Harbor and 9/11 serve the same purpose, but at a way higher price. To an understanding person, the meaning of these public messages is, things are going to go sideways. There is not going to be no war in Ukraine. Regardless how much I would pray to God I'm wrong in that, this is what I'm reading.
    – user36811
    Feb 20 at 17:00
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    @Berend are you saying that the US government did Pearl Harbour and 9/11??
    – coagmano
    Feb 20 at 23:10
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    @coagmano In this respect "did" is a very big word. What I can say with some certainty is, that every major endeavor of US military was preceded by some catalyzing event. The trick in successfully going to war is not in having the necessary military power to start it, but much more in having the necessary population support to sustain it. Both Pearl harbor and 9/11 are such events and both are to this day highly questioned. WMDs and Tonkin bay are even officially acknowledged as fictional. What the "truth" is, is not relevant. It's a very efficient strategy.
    – user36811
    Feb 20 at 23:30
  • 2
    May I ask which country do you think the US is going to attack? Russia? Ukraine? Feb 21 at 9:24
  • 1
    @Berend There is a far cry difference between manufacturing a catalyst for war and using an existing catalyst. Your answer, and subsequent comments imply the US manufactured reasons to be in a perpetual state of war and is inciting the current crisis to create more war.
    – David S
    Feb 21 at 19:34
2

It's pretty simple: There is just one thing you need to know - Russia and USA has been at opposition for many years.

One can hypothesize a lot about all possible goals and reasons USA and Russia have, just like what exactly made Ukraine to be at the situation it is right now. But regardless of all these reasons and hypotheses - destroying public image of Russia is proficient for USA. The situation in Ukraine comes here as a convenient instrument.

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    Your answer could be improved with additional supporting information. Please edit to add further details, such as citations or documentation, so that others can confirm that your answer is correct. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center.
    – Federico
    Feb 19 at 10:00
2

This is called declarative strategy.

Did you know the Russians sent bataillons and anti aircraft missile batteries to repel the Ukrainian army from the cities of Lougansk and Donetsk? That this caused thousands of deaths in the Ukrainian army? This happened in 2014.

Today, Russia seems close to at least a similar intervention, at worse (from the Ukrainian point of view) an all-out invasion. The USA need to acknowledge the situation publicly, in front of everyone, in order to:

  • Legitimaze their intervention if they need to intervene
  • Tell the Russians they are aware of their possible invasion and they won't let them do their things as in 2014
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  • On the other hand, if the US didn't want Russia to do their things in 2014, they would have stopped them back then.
    – Andyc
    Feb 20 at 15:42
  • 1
    @Andyc In 2014 the Russians played it hidden, so the USA were unable to pressure plublicly (it would have been of no effect because the Russians were denying). Today, by saying "the russians will attack" you prepare the public pressions Feb 20 at 17:31
  • Exactly: in 2014 Russian troops were spotted only after the conflict started. This time, the US is telling everyone the troops were deployed before any incident that could justify their presence. Feb 21 at 9:29
-5

American government is trying to stop the war that the Russian regime is planning in Ukraine.

The US population and political campaign donors do not need a war. A war would negatively impact the financial markets, as evidenced by the drops in major stock market indices immediately after the tensions and uncertainty associated with the conflict increased. A war in Europe would be a humanitarian catastrophe (refugees, etc) for Europe and will adversely affect the markets and drive up inflation. With an exception of the weapons manufacturers, trade would be negatively affected. Assuming that political corruption depends linearly on the market cap of the entities that carry out the corruption, we can rule out the major political donors of the US as the factor that increases the likelihood of war.

By announcing the Russian FSB military plans in real time, by making the intel public, the US is depriving Russia of the critical element of surprise. By laying bare the plans of false flag attacks in front of the entire world, the value of such staged attacks is reduced. The only remaining value is to preach to the converted, that is, to that part of the media audience that has already accepted that Ukraine is the aggressor no matter what evidence is presented to the contrary. On the other hand, roughly half of Russians believe that the West and Ukraine are the aggressors in the conflict, which is about 10-fold higher that those that believe that Russia is the aggressor. So announcing the plans of the FSB military arm is definitely not a panacea for this conflict.

If Gleiwitz was announced similarly, maybe WWII would have been delayed. Same goes for WWIII.

References provided upon request by the Pol.se community.

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    The US can deprive Russia of the element of surprise by (privately) informing Ukraine of its suspicions (as suggested by the question). This doesn't answer the question of why to make the announcement public vs private. The real reason is likely about public perception. See e.g. this answer.
    – JBentley
    Feb 21 at 16:02
  • @JBentley It is best to let this thug know that we know that he is a thug. My experience of dealing with Putin’s kind is that they shy away from transparency. Bullies are afraid of being exposed. :) Feb 21 at 16:52
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    Be that as it may (or may not), that isn't what your answer says. Your answer is based on depriving Russia of the element of surprise. If instead your point is that exposing Putin's plan publicly has some benefit which exposing it privately does not, then you should edit that into your answer. As it currently stands, it doesn't address the question asked.
    – JBentley
    Feb 21 at 18:39
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    "Let me know if I need to explain why that it true." Given the way they are exploiting the tension you definitely need to explain that assertion.
    – FluidCode
    Feb 22 at 12:44
  • @JBentley Thank you for the feedback, edited the answer. Feb 22 at 13:10

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