Unlike many in the media and in the chattering classes, I have an acute need to keep up accurately with the “situation” going on between Russia and Ukraine, as my home is in Ukraine. I need to know if it’s safe to stay there or not, so I have been following developments closely. By which I do not mean watching CNN or spending much time reading the mainstream press, I mean following the events on the ground alongside statements, press, and propaganda from Russia, NATO members, the so-called DNR/LNR, Belarus (the most comical), Ukraine, and other interested parties. I’m able to do this thanks to a terrific OSINT discord in which there are of course randos like myself but also experienced intelligence analysts, military personnel, journalists, and people on the ground all around the region. Looking at satellite imagery, Tiktoks (there are dozens of videos posted every day in Russia and Belarus of troop and hardware movements), flights, news reports, press statements, diplomatic evacuations, and more.
So what’s going on? The TL;DR is that the situation is dangerous and the tension has only been building with no sign of de-escalation. While the media and politicians in the West have apparently been going bugfuck non-stop, some have suggested to distract from domestic issues, there are extremely valid reasons to be concerned that something up to and including a military invasion will happen. Many hybrid war elements including large-scale cyberattacks and misleading news have been ongoing and directed at Ukraine in recent days. Whether or not a full-scale military invasion will happen is only known by Putin at this point, but the alarm bells are being rung for good reasons.
Let me attempt to summarize why, starting with some publicly available military movements first:
- While Russia and Belarus have announced the military exercises taking place, these exercises only represent a very small fraction of the forces that have been deployed. The forces deployed are mostly not in the regions the exercises have taken place, the scale of the build-up vastly exceeds the scope of the exercises.
- The Russian Federation Baltic fleet has moved amphibious landing ships and submarines to the Black Sea, which was not scheduled.
- Great numbers of units from the Eastern and Southern Military Districts have been relocated to the border.
- Approximately 60% of Russia’s vast combined arms have moved to the Ukrainian border. The current estimates range from 140,000 troops to 180,000 troops split into 83 battalion tactical groups.
- The U.S. intelligence community upgraded its warnings because of significant quantities of blood being moved to the field, where it has a shelf life of about three weeks. A precious resource, especially during covid, not normally used in exercises.
- A large number of military hospital tents have been set up. Maybe for exercises but unlikely.
- Recently Russian tanks have begun moving under their own power towards the border on city streets, tearing them up. Typically one does not destroy one’s own infrastructure during exercises.
- Russia’s national guard Rosgvardia has been seen moving to the border. They would be expected to follow an incursion and secure newly-controlled territory.
- Ramzan Kadyrov’s personal troops (“Sever” company) have been seen moving from Chechnya to the border. I would not want to meet them under any circumstances. Troops have been filmed boarding trains in Dagestan.
- A massive array of S-300s, S-400s, with transloaders and missiles have amassed at the border with enough range to guarantee complete air supremacy.
- A complement of Iskander ballistic systems accompany the troops. These would be used in any initial attack to neutralize airfields and for SEAD.
- The 1st Guard Tanks Army has been forward deployed to Voronezh, on the border. These are the most elite ground troops Russia has, earmarked for general staff, and would comprise the tip of the spear of any invasion.
- Russian advanced electronic warfare systems near Ukraine
- Russian troops and hardware is not only in training grounds but have been moved to forward operating bases, and actively deployed in the field. Given the snow, mud, and shitty conditions, it’s very unlikely that this posture can be kept up indefinitely.
- Russia has stated that troops are moving away from the border and returning to bases after the completion of exercises. This is demonstrably false, as they have moved closer to the border and at least 7,000 additional troops have appeared in the last couple of days.
- In the last couple days there has been a significant increase in artillery fire in the Donbass, reportedly mostly coming from the Russian side, likely attempting to provoke a reaction that can be used as a pretext for invasion.
In short, all of these elements do not necessarily mean there will be an invasion of Ukraine in the near term, but if one was about to take place this is precisely what one would expect to see preceding a large-scale invasion. If it’s a ruse it’s an extremely convincing one.
But the military posture is not the only cause for concern. The buildup of troops and hardware is one precondition, but it would be expected to be preceded by hybrid information war and cyber attacks. These have been dramatically scaled up since the 15th of February:
- Multiple banks were taken offline at the same time. I was unable to log into my bank because the authentication server was offline.
- The ministries of the interior and defense and the president’s website were taken offline. The A record for mil.gov.ua vanished and was unresolvable by CloudFlare.
- The gov.ua DNS service sustained a 60GBps+ DDoS attack.
- Many Ukrainians were sent SMS messages advising them to withdraw money from ATMs as soon as possible.
- Russian news has been pumping out false or greatly exaggerated stories of mass graves, Nazi death squads, active genocides, and preparations for invasion of Donbass by Ukrainians. Any and every possible pretext for a Russian invasion has been floated in the media by official sources, LNR/DNR media, Belarussian sources.
In addition, in the past couple months:
- The main general-purpose citizen mobile app (Дія) which is used for tax records, ID, Covid certification and other functions was hacked and the personal records of most Ukrainian citizens and residents was posted for sale on the darkweb.
- Car insurance records on finances and addresses of many Ukrainians were stolen.
- Around a terabyte of emails and documents from various ministries was reportedly stolen and published.
These are just a few selected observations out of many that I’ve seen go by. This is all based on open-source intelligence. The most urgent warnings have been coming from the U.S., U.K., Canada, and Australia. This is notable because they are four of the five eyes, countries with access to the most advanced and exceptional signals intelligence. More recently, Israel has been loudly sounding the alarm and increasing El Al flights trying to evacuate Israelis from Ukraine. Many have pointed out that when Israel is concerned, it’s worth taking notice.
People in the media with less, let’s say, granular accounts, have been quoting unnamed intelligence officials about specific dates and times of an invasion. I would not put too much stock in such reports because such reports are often of a more propagandistic nature. But I would very much look at the facts on the ground in conjunction with more official warnings. These official warnings have not predicted a specific date of invasion, only about the date upon which an invasion would be completely ready to go. It’s reasonable to be skeptical of these reports, but I believe they are not just pure fabrication or without basis in intelligence, publicly available or otherwise. There is a hypothetical argument to be made that by the leaking of intercepts and intelligence assessments, the U.S. has caused Putin to reconsider plans for invasion. This is a possibility, one of many, but one we cannot know today. Maybe in 15 or 20 years we’ll be able to look back and see what really happened in these times and know. Perhaps it is all merely military exercises, perhaps it is a move to permanently station Russian forces in Belarus, perhaps it was an attempt at diplomacy that failed(?), perhaps it was to intimidate Ukraine into accepting the Minsk agreements. It is clear that these maneuvers were many months or years in planning, executed at great expense, and not merely ordinary troop movements. There was a deliberate effort here to achieve something, opaque as that something may be at this moment.
What could the goal of these efforts be? Some say it is a bluff by Putin, to secure concessions from NATO and the U.S. by scaring everyone into thinking they will launch an attack on Ukraine in case their demands are not met. It’s no secret that the Russian Federation feels existentially concerned about the expansion of NATO, an explicitly anti-Russian alliance. They feel that the U.S.’s claims of upholding a rules-based international order and the sanctity of internationally recognized borders are laughably false. Sadly it must be admitted that they have a point. From the NATO bombing of Serbia and recognition of Kosovo, to the illegal wars of aggression in Iraq and Afghanistan, and more recently the covert and overt military interventions in places like Libya and Syria by the U.S. obviously run counter to the stated values and norms that are supposed to be so inviolable and non-negotiable. As an American I truly wish my government had more credibility and moral high ground here. Anyone who doesn’t have amnesia can see how hypocritical much of the moral posturing is, and Russia will play this up to the greatest extent possible.
However I am skeptical that this massive, expensive, extraordinary military buildup and active hybrid warfare aimed at Ukraine is purely about securing agreement from the U.S. and NATO. This is because their demands, given in writing, were clearly impossible to meet and Putin doubtlessly knew this. There is zero reason to believe Russia seriously expected NATO to kick out all of the members who joined since 1997. They also know that Ukraine is not going to be joining NATO anytime soon because of the active conflict in Donbass, among other reasons. The negotiations have been an obvious farce, so what would be the point of a bluff? If it is a bluff of an imminent attack, it certainly may be the most elaborate and convincing in all of modern history. No one hopes more than me that an invasion will not take place, and I think it unlikely that bombs will start falling on Kyiv, but I need to assess the situation rationally. Even if the risk is small, is it worth staying in Ukraine right now as all this is happening? Would you?
As to why former USSR countries desperately want to be a part of NATO, this is left as an exercise for the reader. In my personal opinion the only peaceful and lasting solution to this larger conflict would be for NATO to offer a path to Russia to join, with preconditions on a more democratic political system. This would take all of the wind out of Putin’s sails, prove that NATO is not purely an anti-Russia military alliance, and provide an avenue for political pressure to push the country in a positive direction as offering NATO and EU membership to other countries has done.
On at least one point, Russia has been consistent and persistent: that Ukraine must implement the Minsk agreements, which were signed as a ceasefire in 2015, under extreme duress. Russia’s interpretation of the agreements would effectively give Russian-backed separatists in the Donbass seats in parliament and political control and vetos on Ukraine’s foreign policy. Such an agreement, essentially signed at the time with a gun to their heads, is unimplementable in Kyiv today. Any government implementing Russia’s interpretation would be gone within a week, probably violently. Too many Ukrainians have fought and died to give power of their country over to Russia. Russia knows this and continues to push for it because they can say they are just trying to address the situation diplomatically. It is dreadfully cynical.
Another relevant agreement which Russia is not quick to bring up is the Budapest Memorandum, which was an agreement signed in 1994 by the U.S., U.K., Russia, Ukraine and others guaranteeing freedom from aggression and violations of borders in exchange for Ukraine giving up its nuclear weapons. To quote Wikipedia:
On 4 March 2014, the Russian president Vladimir Putin replied to a question on the violation of the Budapest Memorandum, describing the current Ukrainian situation as a revolution: “a new state arises, but with this state and in respect to this state, we have not signed any obligatory documents.” Russia stated that it had never been under obligation to “force any part of Ukraine’s civilian population to stay in Ukraine against its will.” Russia tried to suggest that the US was in violation of the Budapest Memorandum and described the Euromaidan as a US-instigated coup.
At the UN Security Council meeting in January on the Russian military buildup, the Russian ambassador blasted a shotgun of non-sequiturs ranging from Colin Powell’s evidence of WMDs in Iraq, the “CIA-backed color revolution installing Nazis in power” in the Maidan revolution (please don’t let me catch you repeating this profoundly inaccurate propaganda, even if you heard it repeated on your lefty podcasts), and “Ukrainian aggression” against Russian-speaking peoples. Following this verbal assault he regretfully excused himself because of an unmovable prior commitment, as the Ukrainian ambassador was about to begin his remarks. Since this, Russian ministers have been asserting the need to intervene in the event of attacks on Russian speakers in Ukraine in the event of genocide, this propaganda being pushed by state news agencies such as RIA Novosti in the past few days. The false narratives being constantly put out by state-owned media in Russia about the atrocities being committed in Ukraine have been reaching a fever pitch. If you think the media in the West is hysterical, you should see what they’re saying on Russian TV.
Some say that Russia has done considerable damage against Ukraine without an invasion, and this is indeed true. The economic and human costs since 2014 but particularly in recent weeks has been enormous. Over 14,000 lives have been lost in the conflict, many flights over Ukrainian airspace have been canceled because insurance companies refuse to insure flights to and over Ukraine, remembering the MH-17 tragedy early in the war when a civilian airline was shot down with Russian weaponry. Billions of dollars in economic damage is being done to the Ukrainian economy, tourism is basically canceled.
Foreign ministries from the U.S., U.K., Australia, Sweden, Finland, Israel, Germany, Italy, UAE, Kuwait, Japan, Lithuania, and many other countries have told their citizens to leave immediately in no uncertain terms.
The U.S. embassy in Kyiv has been deactivated, the computers destroyed, and the staff evacuated to Lviv or outside the country. The Russian embassy was seen burning something today, most of its members evacuated as well. Some extremely VIP personnel were seen driving in black SUVs to the Polish border, running to a black hawk helicopter with a medevac callsign, and then quickly whisked away.
The people who have it the worst are the poor residents of the Donbass. This morning a pre-school was shelled, with three staff injured. Ukraine isn’t even the real concern of Russia, NATO is. But here we are, caught in the middle as usual. Ukrainians don’t want to be pawns in some madman’s game, just to live in peace.
I can recommend this very recent study put out by the Royal United Services Institute: https://static.rusi.org/special-report-202202-ukraine-web.pdf.
And the best source of information I’m aware of is the Project OWL OSINT discord.
U.N. Security Council meeting on Ukraine from today, February 17th: