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Is the US playing Chicken Little on Russia and Ukraine?

The US and the UK governments say a Russian attack on Ukraine is imminent. Others have doubts.

By Emily Tamkin

Over the past several months, as Russia amassed and kept troops on Ukraine’s border, Ukraine’s allies have disagreed, publicly, about the severity of the situation. The United States has warned invasion is imminent, and US officials said Russia was planning to come up with a pretext for invasion. The United Kingdom, meanwhile, said that Russia was going to install a leader sympathetic to the Kremlin in Kyiv, and last week said it had “high confidence” that Russia was going to fabricate a pretext for invasion. 

This is a marked contrast from several European leaders. French President Emmanuel Macron, in particular, has tried to engage with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and has stressed the potential for a diplomatic resolution. France and Germany joined Ukraine and Russia this week for Normandy format talks (though they were ultimately fruitless). Even Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told US President Joe Biden to “calm down” the rhetoric around Russia (though notably he did not also ask him to stop sending military support).  

As weeks go by without an assault, an additional question — besides, of course “will Russia invade?” — arises: in saying that an invasion is imminent, has the United States cast itself in the role of Chicken Little, claiming that the sky is falling and disaster is on its way? 

The answer depends on whether one considers such rhetoric to be fanning the flames or encouraging deterrence. Washington (and, for that matter, London) are likely hoping that by acting as though they have Putin’s number, and know what he’s planning to do, they can prevent him from doing it in the first place. The criticism of this is two-fold: first, when your rhetoric starts at maximum volume, you can’t get louder if things actually do escalate; and second, there’s the possibility that American warnings will actually become a self-fulfilling prophecy, leaving Russia with no way to back down. If Russia does invade, the US and the UK will have been proven right — but it will be a hollow victory, since all the warnings didn’t amount to a shift in Russian policy.  

If, on the other hand, Russia doesn’t invade Ukraine, every side of this argument can claim victory. The US and the UK can say that, rather than being incorrect in their assessment, their assertive stance had a deterring effect. Meanwhile other European partners can claim that Biden and US intelligence officials were panicking for nothing; measured negotiations — and rhetoric — was the right call. It won’t likely be a satisfying end to the argument for either side. But it will be the best possible outcome. 

[See more: How Russia’s neighbours are turning against Putin]

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