MR reader Edmund Levin sent me this very useful piece, based around a poll of IR scholars, with the poll opened on December 16 and if I understand correctly continuing through some point in January 2022.
Here is one question “In the next year, will Russia use military force against Ukrainian military forces or additional parts of the territory of Ukraine where it is not currently operating?” The responses:
Yes 203 56.08%
No 73 20.17%
Do not know 86 23.76%
You will note that the question could simply be referring to some additional police action, which is in fact what many people were predicting at the time. I find it striking that the researchers don’t ask about a full-scale invasion. What percentage would have predicted a full-scale attack?
Here is the same question posed to the regional specialists, namely: “In the next year, will Russia use military force against Ukrainian military forces or additional parts of the territory of Ukraine where it is not currently operating?” The responses are barely different, though slightly better:
Yes 36 (60.0%)
No 12 (20.0%)
Don’t know 12 (20.0%)
I take those results to be 60-40 that a modest majority of the specialists respondents expected further Russian military action in the next year, again noting that additional police action would suffice to generate a “yes” response.
Is that a good or bad performance relative to a full-scale invasion date of February 24, with the massing of Russian troops well underway?
If I turn to the December 3 Washington Post, I see a major article by journalists Shane Harris and Paul Sonne, titled “Russia planning massive military offensive against Ukraine involving 175,000 troops, U.S. intelligence warns.” The piece offers plenty of detail, including photos, maps, and good sourcing. Of course it turned out to be correct, and I am only one of many people who realized this at the time. Furthermore, if you saw such a piece, you might have inquired with your network at the time (as I did), including sources in multiple relevant countries, and learned in response that the predictions of this article were no joke, no media excess, and in fact likely to happen. Furthermore the rhetoric, demand, and logistics investments of Russia at the time strongly suggested “attack and blame Ukraine” as the equilibrium, rather than some kind of knife-edge bargaining strategy of “attack with p = 0.6” — that one can learn by reading Thomas Schelling.
So in my view the regional IR specialists were well behind the understanding of two Washington Post reporters, or for that matter well-connected newspaper readers. A lot of the experts don’t seem to have tracked the issue very closely. Here is my previous (lengthy) post on the topic.
Addendum: Levin also points out to me that Sam Charap of Rand got it right as early as fall of 2021.