Volume 11 of Metaculus Mondays: Amid rising tensions between Russia and Ukraine and an increasing troop build up, is the conflict about to intensify?
When the USSR collapsed in 1991 several former Soviet nations regained their sovereignty, including Russia’s neighbor Ukraine. After the USSR’s dissolution Russia spent nearly a decade solving the domestic economic woes that accompanied their independence. But at the turn of the 21st century, under Vladimir Putin’s rule, the country’s goals began to shift.
Under Putin, Russia became a state operating from a position of weakness to one operating from a position of strength. Since his ascendancy to the presidency, Putin has put Russia back on the world stage during his 20+ year tenure; he moved Russia closer to key EU and NATO powers, even seeking to join NATO in the early aughts.
In the last 15 years, however, Russia’s position on the world stage has been anything but amicable. In part due to Putin’s vision for Russia and in part due to the behavior of the countries in Russia's vicinity, tensions have been rising in the region. Several countries near Russia have joined NATO in that time period, with Russia’s closest neighbor, Ukraine, trying eagerly to join since 2004 as well.
In 2014 these tensions came to a head when Putin annexed Crimea in Ukraine, with the Ukrainian Military, Russia forces, and Russian separatists all becoming involved in an embroiled battle. And while tensions died down over the past half-decade, tensions flared up again in January when both Ukraine and Russia were seen to be moving military vehicles and troops to the Russo-Ukrainian border.
Now, with tensions reaching recent highs and little information as to Russia’s intentions, there is great speculation around how this new conflict will pan out. In this volume of Metaculus Mondays we will forecast just that!
The question we are forecasting for this Metaculus Mondays asks the likelihood that violence in Ukraine escalates to the point where deaths reach over 250 in any month during 2021. Currently the median prediction for this question on Metaculus is 42% with 89 predictions registered thus far.
There are only 4 comments on this question so far, which is surprising given the volume of updates this event has received over the past three months. It may be, however, that with so many narratives floating around, and no tools to determine whether information is diagnostic to this question or not, people reminisce to share ‘evidence’. Either way, this question has immense importance for the region and the larger global community.
Russia is heavily invested in Ukraine given their ethnic and historical similarities. Millions of Ukrainians work in Russia, and many also identify ethnically with the larger former Soviet bloc. And for Ukraine this is a massive decision-point that the country faced in 2014 -- whether to align with the West or retain their historical ties with Russia. And if we look at the Abraham Accords as an example, countries seem to be looking out for their own best interest rather than conserving historical relationships for the sake of tradition. The answers to these questions will have large ripple-on effects in domestic Russian and Ukrainian markets, oil prices, and the future of clean energy in Eastern Europe. So without further ado, let’s get into the question!
Although the base-rate (how often something happens historically) is probably less useful in this case -- given much of the Russo-Ukrainian War has taken place under a ceasefire established by the Minsk 2 protocols in February 2015 -- we still find it a useful starting point for the forecast.
Since the Russo-Ukrainian War began in February 2014, only four months during the initial fighting–August 2014, September 2014, January 2015, February 2015–were there more than 250 Ukrainian military deaths according to information posted onto Metaculus. This would be a base-rate of 4 out of 86 months or 4.7% per month, which would equal a 25.6% likelihood by October 1, 2021.
Positive Signals for Conflict
Next, we examined all of the factors which would support the death toll rising to the criteria presented in the Metaculus question of >250 in a given month in 2021:
- Cost and Troop numbers
Since January, Russia has moved a large number of troops, munitions, machinery, and infrastructure to its border with Ukraine. Russia has allegedly sent over 100,000 troops (more than they sent during the build up in 2014 which led to the onset of the war) and has sent machinery over very long distances, which would signal either more serious posturing, or potentially more serious investment in conflict.
Deployments are expensive. For instance, the deployment of the US military and National Guard to the Southern border in 2019 cost ~$52.8M per month, while a 26,000 National Guard deployment to the capitol between January 6 and February 4 cost $500M. The cost of deploying over 100,000 troops (more than in the build up in 2014) with all the other resources would be high for Russia, especially when you consider it comes amid new sanctions and the Covid-19 pandemic. Given this high investment, Putin is likely expecting something valuable in return.
- Relative Decline in US + New Administration
In 2014, the United States’ influence on the world stage was much greater than it is now, and it’s relative power compared to Russia was larger as well. Over the past near-decade, however, this gap has shrunk considerably, due in large part to the actions of the Trump administration. Now, with a new government, and a United States more polarized than it ever has before, Putin may see this as a good time to test America’s power and act unilaterally in Donbass (or Donbas).
The same power dynamics between the United States and Russia can be observed with the United States and China, and European Union and Russia, as well as the European Union and China. This trend may embolden Russia even further. These factors may make either invasion or appeasement more likely given Russia’s relative strength in this battle.
- “Accidental” Spark
For the last 4 months both Russia and Ukraine have been sending troops and artillery to the Russo-Ukrainian border. Simply the act of militarizing the area to this extent increases the likelihood for there to be a spark that sets off this conflict. There have been casualties so far that haven’t resulted in outright war, but as both sides build, any mistake could send both countries into a violent spiral which has global ramifications. Furthermore, conflict could be sparked by pro-Russian separatists who are embolden by the large Russian military presence.
- Scope of Military Buildup
Although the news is primarily focusing on the troop build up on the border in Donbass, Russia forces are also increasing military presence on all borders with Ukraine and sending a large force presence to the Black Sea.
When was the last time Russia had this many ships in the Black Sea? All of Russia's fleets and flotillas have ships in the area except for the Pacific Fleet.https://t.co/g5PWFB9auT— Rob Lee (@RALee85) April 18, 2021
Negative Signals for Conflict
We spoke with Aaron Schwartzbaum, a friend of Global Guessing, to learn more about the factors dragging down the likelihood of escalated conflict between Russia and Ukraine in Donbass. Aaron is a former Eurasia Group employee and founder of the Bear Market Brief, a bi-weekly newsletter published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute that covers all things Russia and Ukraine. According to Aaron there are a few factors that would suggest violence will not reach the >250 deaths/month threshold needed for a positive resolution. They are:
- Right now the current death rate of the conflict is ~10 deaths per month in 2021. This conflict would need to multiply in magnitude 25x without foreign intervention to reach the desired threshold, which seems, at least on the surface, a tall task to achieve.
- There is a chance that Ukraine appeases Russia with major concessions should the difference in power between the countries become too great. And given Russia’s immense resources and continued build-up at the border, this inflection point may be reached rather quickly.
- Russia has been making their military movements fairly public, with videos surfacing from February of trains carrying Russian artillery to the Ukrainian border. If Russia really wanted to carry out a strategic attack on Ukraine, one would think they would value their privacy more. The public-nature of Russia’s movements suggests that this is more posturing and performative than true acts of aggression. Aaron shared that “We see tons of OSINT [open source intelligence] with equipment being moved around in broad daylight. They *want* us to see that there's a buildup.”
- Given the expense of moving weapons and troops, U.S. sanctions, and Covid-19, Russia would be reluctant to annex more territory for which it would then be fiscally and economically responsible. Especially given Ukraine’s improved military preparation compared to 2014, war would likely be extremely costly.
Equalizing the Signals
Not all factors are made equal, however. To understand how these factors on balance affect the overall likelihood we now analyze their relative impact ranging from low (value of 1) to medium (2) to high (3). With regards to the pro-conflict factors, we rate all of them as high-impact factors since they relate to material costs (cost and scope of military build up), geopolitical constraints (US decline), and uncertainty under tension (accidental spark). And in support of the ‘accidental spark’ theory, there has been research done which shows that higher levels of militarization in police forces can lead to higher levels of violence, or use that equipment. As such, it follows that this phenomenon could be applied to the case at the border too–more guns and tanks raises the chances that one of those guns is used.
By contrast, the anti-conflict factors are a mixed bag according to our analysis. While the possibility of appeasement is a clear high-impact factor, the other factors listed by Aaron are low in our analysis. The death-rate may be low now, but given we saw such numbers during the onset of the conflict and that wars follow a power-law distribution (likelihood of deaths increasing from 100 -> 1000 is the same as increasing from 1000 -> 10000) we find the recent causality statistics to be less relevant. Moreover, we also question just how visible Russia’s deployment has been. Although open source intelligence groups have been tracking the build up since at least February, the event has only received major news coverage in recent weeks. Not only that, but the coverage has been nearly exclusively on the Donbass build-up rather than the larger Ukrainian border buildup. In addition, although other analysts such as Michael Kofman at CNA agree that the current build up is a coercive demonstration, they also note there is a significant chance it is not or the situation could continue to escalate into something more serious. Finally, the extent to which the Ukrainian military has been improved is disputed and there are a lot of energy reserves in Donbass which would make its annexation potentially valuable meaning the costs may not be as high as first thought.
On balance, this leads to 12 points in favor of conflict and 6 in favor of no conflict.
Given the 2-1 ratio for renewed conflict, we feel comfortable applying a 2x multiplier on the base-rate, leading to a 51% likelihood for renewed conflict in Donbass between Russia and Ukraine that would lead to at least 250 Ukrainian military deaths in a single month before October 1, 2021.
Update (4/22): 15% Likelihood
We expect a significant update (and potential recast) of this question in next week's volume of Metaculus Mondays so make sure to subscribe for our newsletter to get that update.
If our forecast changes between today and next week, we will update the needle and explain on Twitter.
As we look past the resolution of this question, we expect that there will be several updates to the situation in Donbass that will be relevant to our forecast. Signals if you will. For those of you also forecasting this question, we would encourage you to keep track of these factors as well!
- If the relative strength of Russia to Ukraine becomes too great with respect to troop deployment at the border, we might see Ukraine choose an appeasement strategy and give way to Russian forces. While this would not preclude violence from occurring at the levels outlined in the Metaculus question, it would certainly lessen the chances of a violent outbreak so we will be keeping tabs on the relative might of each country at the border
- We will also be paying attention to the sorts of vehicles, troops, and facilities that Russia is introducing to the border. While tanks and infantry are significant, they are not diagnostic in determining Russia’s tensions or the likelihood of greater violence. If we see medical personnel, fuel pipelines, or other infrastructure that would signal the expectation of casualties or protracted violence, we will certainly bake that into our forecast, however.
- We will also be looking at Putin and Zelensky to see if they say anything that pulls our forecast in a particular direction. Although politicians are certainly subject to constraints re. Geopolitical Alpha, at this stage in the conflict their words cannot be ignored. And especially given the dearth of transparency on the part of Russia in this spat, anything that might bring clarity to the situation will be duly weighed.
- NATO has been conducting an increasing number of drills in and around Ukraine over the past month. If these increase it may push Russia to posture more aggressively, or even carry out an attack, which would greatly affect our forecast. NATO action could also hint at a possible deterrence-catalyzed détente in the future, so the bent of NATO’s actions in the region will be of interest to us.
- Finally, Putin will be delivering a speech on April 21st to the Federal Assembly, Russia’s national legislature. While the topics of Putin’s address have remained under wraps, the timing of the speech lines up within days of Crimea’s official annexation in 2014, making viewers very curious about what Putin has to share. It’s us. We are viewers.
- Aaron thinks that, at worst, this speech will result in the annexation of separatist territories that already align with Russia ethnically and politically. At this stage, Russia wouldn’t go out of its way to create further discord especially given its current economic situation. Finally, if you want to learn more about what’s going on in Donbass, or hear GlobalGuessing’s initial takes on the conflict before writing this article, tune in to our most recent Global Guessing Weekly Podcast episode with Ross from AR Global Security here!
Podcast on Donbass Build Up
Finally, if you want to learn more about what’s going on in Donbass, or hear GlobalGuessing’s initial takes on the conflict before writing this article, tune in to our most recent Global Guessing Weekly Podcast episode with Ross from AR Global Security here!