Putin on the Brink… of What, Exactly?

Russia, Belarus joint military drill
Photo by Stringer/Anadolu via Getty
Julia Ioffe
February 15, 2022

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Russia is about to invade Ukraine.

We’re now in the second month of talking about an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine that has, thankfully, not yet materialized. And while two months is not even a blink in the time frame of history, it feels like an eternity in our world of 24-hour news cycles. This particular round began on Friday afternoon with a tweet from PBS NewsHour’s foreign policy correspondent, Nick Schifrin: “NEW: The US believes Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided to invade Ukraine and has communicated that decision to the Russian military, three Western and defense officials tell me.” A follow-up stated: “The US expects the invasion to begin next week, six US and Western officials tell me, as Secretary of State Antony @SecBlinken said last night.” 

As you can imagine, a well-known reporter from such an august outlet reporting something so definitive and stark—yet another tweet warned of unfathomable bloodshed—had the effect of pouring a cup of water on a bucket of Pop Rocks. As Schifrin’s tweet ricocheted wildly around the geopolitical Twitterverse, the rest of us reporting on the Ukrainian crisis raced to confirm the story. I texted one administration official, who texted back another tweet from Schifrin, who was, by this point, live tweeting a press conference by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan addressing this very issue. The tweet, sent to me by this administration source who had first-hand knowledge of what the hell was going on, said: “.@jakejsullivan: ‘We are not saying that a decision has been taken, a final decision has been taken by Putin.’”