Why Are Politicians and Media Fanning the Flames of War Panic in Ukraine?

Washington officials have been terrifying the world with warnings of an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine. But everyone else in a position to know seems pretty sure there isn’t one coming.

Joe Biden speaking with supporters at a town hall hosted by the Iowa Asian and Latino Coalition at Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 33 in Des Moines, Iowa, on August 8, 2019. (Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

The world has been gripped for the past two months by the Ukraine crisis, with Moscow seemingly poised to invade Ukraine at any moment, and US officials calling for war — even nuclear strikes — in response. Washington has been flooding the former Soviet republic with weapons and other military aid ever since, with $200 million worth starting to arrive this week, and Democratic lawmakers are now scrambling to send another $500 million of military aid on top of that. It’s one of several measures meant to deter or, in the worst-case scenario, defend against a Russian invasion that’s been sold as “imminent” since the start of December.

With so much excitement happening, you’d be forgiven for missing the serious doubt that such an invasion is even going to happen. While politicians and media in the United States, UK, and other North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries have been hyping the prospect of war, officials inside of Ukraine — the country being potentially invaded — have been telling people a different story.

Just yesterday, the split led to a minor diplomatic rift after a phone call between Joe Biden and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, which Kyiv signaled in advance it would use to ask Washington to tamp down the rhetoric. While what exactly was said remains a point of dispute, the substance is that Biden believes a Russian invasion could come in February, while Zelensky holds that it’s far from clear and that the Russian threat is “dangerous but ambiguous.”

This isn’t new. Last week, just hours before Biden told the White House press corps he thought Russian president Vladimir Putin would “move in” because he “has to do something,” Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky was urging his people to “take a deep breath” and “calm down,” assuring them things were “under control.”

“The risks have not just existed for a day, and they have not become bigger. The only thing that has become bigger is the hype around them,” he said, adding that media should strive to “be methods of mass information and not mass hysteria.” Later, after Washington and the UK evacuated their Ukrainian embassies, Zelensky thanked Charles Michel, president of the European Council, and leaders of European Union countries for not following suit.

Zelensky is not the only Ukrainian official to strike this note. In the same call, Ukraine’s foreign minister told Michel the evacuations were “premature and a display of excessive caution.” He later told reporters that the number of Russian troops amassed “is insufficient for a full-scale offensive along the entire Ukrainian border,” and that they “lack some important military indicators and systems to conduct such a large full-scale offensive.”

“We can say 100 times a day invasion is imminent, but this doesn’t change the situation on the ground,” he insisted.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s defense minister earlier told the country’s parliament that “as of today, there are no grounds to believe” an invasion is imminent, adding, “No need to have your bags packed.” The secretary of the National Security and Defense Council, roughly the Ukrainian equivalent of the US president’s National Security Council, has similarly played down the need for panic, telling the BBC that “if something is not there, it is not necessary to say that it is,” and refusing to affirm the US media portrayal of an imminent Russian invasion, saying that “the threat from Russia to our country always exists” — even charging that such panic-mongering helps Putin’s machinations in Ukraine.

In other words, we have Ukraine’s president, its foreign and defense ministers, and a top national security official all urging calm, while denying there’s sufficient evidence to expect a coming Russian invasion, contrary to the tidal wave of messaging from US officials and the press. Of course, you could dismiss this as a country’s leadership playing down a threat they know is real to prevent panic and disorder. But they’re not the only ones saying it.

Earlier this week, the Center for Defense Strategies — a think tank headed by a former Ukrainian defense minister and on whose board sit a variety of other defense and diplomatic officials from both Ukraine and the United States — published an analysis of the risks of a Russian invasion. Its conclusion? That “a full-scale invasion capturing most or all of Ukraine in the near future seems unlikely,” citing the insufficient number of Russian troops and a number of other indicators, including the lack of mobilization of medical infrastructure and strategic military units. (There have been some more troop movements since then).

European governments have said likewise. The EU’s top diplomat accused Washington and Westminster of “dramatizing” the situation, saying that the EU would not evacuate its embassy “because we do not know any specific reasons.” The Dutch embassy in Kyiv similarly told the Telegraph it saw “no reason” to do so, while a French official said they’d “observed the same movements” but “cannot deduce from all this that an offensive is imminent.” And just today, Germany’s spy chief also contradicted the Washington line, telling Reuters he “believe[s] that the decision to attack has not yet been made.”

So, what exactly is going on here? There are any number of scenarios. It could be, as some analysts speculate, that Zelensky has manipulated the situation to gain a flood of military aid and advance his push to enter NATO, and now, having gotten part of what he wanted and with the situation escalating, he’s pulling back. Perhaps Washington really is privy to information others aren’t and acting on that basis, or perhaps the Biden administration is overcompensating for the president’s earlier rhetorical flub. Maybe Putin really is planning to invade, or maybe he’s just engineered a crisis to bring Washington to the negotiating table, shore up Russia’s great power status, or both.

Whatever the case, there are clearly good reasons to treat with some caution the panic-mongering around this issue that’s endemic to US politicians and the media, both of which have deep financial and institutional ties to the military-industrial complex that stands to profit from increased tensions. And all of this makes the current Democratic rush to flood Ukraine with hundreds of millions of dollars in military assistance and even preemptively sanction Russia, a strategically and diplomatically self-defeating move, appear rash and overzealous — or worse, a ploy to funnel more money to war industry donors.

Through it all, there’s no thought given to the potential long-term implications of flooding a country filled with neo-Nazi militias — some of them integrated into its military and law enforcement, and who have trained and inspired violent far-right extremists in the West — with weapons, training, and other support. Together with Biden still refusing to negotiate over limiting NATO’s expansion, an imminent Russian invasion may not be certain now, but Washington may well be planting the seeds for future conflict.