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How You Could Have Predicted Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine, and Other Lessons in Media Signaling

Source: Reuters

As we now well know, on February 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine. Three months earlier to the day, on December 24, Russia made a very clear signal of its deepening shift away from European integration and toward nationalist revanchism that went all but unnoticed. Russia Today (aka RT), Russia’s primary state-backed Western-facing news outlet, removed its sections covering the United States and United Kingdom and promoted the “Russia & FSU” section into a prominently-displayed “Russia and the Former Soviet Union” ahead of all other topics.

Though this act may seem small and its timing perhaps coincidental, media signaling can actually provide insight into the intentions of regimes. Watching state media outlets and their changing priorities (with a healthy dose of skepticism) can help us understand the national priorities of countries from the US to Russia and China, even if predicting discrete actions is not always possible. Alongside official statements and historical context, state media signaling can help us better understand a country’s new national security priorities.

In the case of Russia, changing the sections on RT three months before the war was a very visible signal to the world of the country’s continued shift away from its rapprochement with the West and Europe and toward a more revisionist view of regional domination. When Russia Today eliminated the USA and UK from the banner of its English-language site, it seemed to eliminate any semblance of desire to integrate into the Western-dominated world order. Instead, Russia chose to re-prioritize its historic sphere of influence.

Dec 23

Dec 24

This website change happened just as Russia was building up troops on Ukraine’s border, beginning in November. By early December, the United States was warning of a possible Russian invasion—a foresight that would come true two months later. Russia’s government officials, for their part, were very clear that Russia had a sovereign right to protect its “key security interests,” particularly in response to NATO expanding eastward toward its borders.

If this sounds familiar, it is a very similar playbook to the statements that presaged the Russo-Georgian War of 2008. Back in 2008, three months before invading Georgia, Russia warned the nation against joining NATO. However, muddling the predictive capabilities of analyzing Russian threats—official or otherwise—is the frequency with which these threats are made. Ten years after the conflict, in 2018, Russia again warned Georgia against joining NATO (a threat that has yet to be again followed up upon).

Russia is far from the only state whose media can provide insight into its foreign policy. The United States government also operates a number of media outlets, most notably Voice of America (VOA) and its Radio Free [Region] stations. Just as Russia changed RT by removing Western countries and prioritizing the Former Soviet Union, VOA’s sections reflect the foreign policy priorities the US wants the world to see.

Feb 8

In fact, the US moved opposite Russia, adding a prominent Ukraine section to its website on February 8, 2022, after tensions had been rising for over a year—an early signal of US support for the invaded country. VOA also reflects broader US global policy goals, with China and Iran singled out on the banner. In recent years, the US military has shifted to focus on renewed great power competition with Russia and China, while Iran is still seen as a specific threat in the Middle East, which is reflected in official strategy documents.

For yet another example of where media and official policy align very publicly, we have China’s statements on the status of Taiwan and its right to resolve this status through military force. However, despite longstanding threats and warnings, China has not yet followed through with invading Taiwan. The PRC regularly threatens military action against the United States for selling arms to Taiwan and sending US officials to visit the island. Despite routine threats, the United States continues to sell arms to Taiwan without major repercussions from China. In contrast to Russia, China does not have a recent history of swiftly following through on threats of military force—though it is also jousting with a fellow great power rather than just pushing around its smaller neighbors. China is likely to continue to butt heads with the United States in the region. Just recently, President Xi declared Asia “no one’s backyard” while Vice President Harris announced to Asian leaders that “the US is here to stay.” The interactions between US and Chinese foreign policy as well as its portrayal in media will remain an important area to watch for the foreseeable future.

International relations are complex, and governments’ outward policy goals frequently shift. As a result, it is difficult to outline precisely when changes in media signaling presage a conflict, reflect an official change in tact, or simply illustrate what the country thinks the most pressing foreign policy issues are. Nonetheless, analyzing media analysis jointly with the posturing behavior of government officials can give us a more complete picture of what nations want us to know and where they might be directing their attention.