Has Russian President Vladimir Putin made up his mind to stage a large-scale invasion of Ukraine?
Nobody seems to know for sure, except probably Putin. But a look at Russian state-controlled media hints that a decision has not yet been made.
That’s the view of three long-time watchers of Russian politics and diplomacy based in Moscow and Washington, D.C. who spoke with VICE World News this week. The high-stakes border crisis between Russia and Ukraine remains volatile and could further escalate without warning, just as a new round of shelling ramped up in the tense border region on Thursday.
“For the moment—for today—the message is still: ‘No invasion,’” said Andrei Kolesnikov, chair of the Russian domestic politics and political institutions program at the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank.
Ukrainian soldiers respond to shelling. PHOTO: ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images
Russian state media is tightly controlled by Putin’s Kremlin, and their messaging is watched closely by observers for clues about Moscow’s intentions. So far, these state outlets still don’t yet appear to be preparing the Russian public for a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, with all the costs and high death toll that would come from a massive occupation, the analysts said. The tone has been less bellicose than it was during Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea, they said.
Moscow has sought to portray Russia as a victim of Western aggression, even as Putin massed an estimated 169-190,000 troops in and near Ukraine while demanding diplomatic concessions. U.S. officials have warned that an invasion could be imminent.
“The Kremlin has convinced the [Russian] public through a nonstop onslaught of propaganda that it is the west that is pushing Russia towards war,” said Anna Borschevskaya, an expert on Russia’s military and foreign policy at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington D.C. “But this narrative, ‘we don’t want war, but the West is pushing towards a confrontation,’ also suggests that Putin has not yet fully made up his mind to invade.”
Russia’s public narrative about Ukraine, of course, has hardly been friendly.
Putin has claimed, without evidence, that “genocide” is being committed in Ukraine’s eastern region of Donbas. U.S. officials warn that Russia could use those claims, or other inflammatory assertions, as a pretext for war.
U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price has dismissed “reports of unmarked mass graves of civilians allegedly killed by Ukrainian armed forces, and statements that the United States or Ukraine are developing biological or chemical weapons” as baseless propaganda.
While these kinds of unfounded accusations might sound hardcore, the level of outrage hasn’t yet reached the kind of frenzy whipped up in 2014, when Russian annexed crime and war broke out with Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. At that time, claims of Ukrainian atrocities included a false, incendiary story about Ukrainian troops punishing the town of Slavyansk, after retaking the area from pro-Russian insurgents, by publicly executing a 3-year-old boy in front of his mother.
Russian separatists have been accused of shelling this kindergarten in Ukraine. PHOTO: ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images
Ukraine has been locked in a bloody conflict with Russia-backed separatists in its eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk since 2014. Together, those regions are known as the Donbas. Some 13,000 people have been killed and up to 30,000 people wounded in the fighting, according to the United Nations.
On Thursday, a spike in shelling along the border raised fresh fears that Russia could use the violence as a pretext for an invasion.
Russian officials and state-run media have suggested for weeks that Ukraine, backed by Western allies, is allegedly gearing up to stage an attack on the Donbas, said Oleg Ignatov, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group.
That message appears to be preparing the Russian public for a limited conflict in the Donbas region, Igantev said, rather than an all-out invasion. But he cautioned that a limited conflict could easily turn into a larger war.
By Russia as a country resisting Western war hysteria, Putin keeps his options open, Borschevskaya said. This allows him to blame any escalation on Russia’s opponents, or alternatively, to take credit for any reduction in tensions as a diplomatic victory.
“I think that if Russia were to stage an invasion they would likely characterize it as a self-defense mission or a humanitarian mission,” Borschevskaya said. “I still think Putin has not yet backed himself into a corner.”