“Be afraid and expect the worst,” is the message “hackers” posted to Ukrainian websites in January. What kind of game is Putin playing?

Meeting of the Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis with the President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin, in Sochi. Sochi, Wednesday 08 December 2021. (DIMITRIS PAPAMITSOS / GT PRIME MINISTER)

Even in the Information Age, it’s almost impossible to discern with any certainty just what in the world is happening between Russia and Ukraine.

Is Russia really preparing to invade? Is all this some kind of test? Is it a power play by Vladimir Putin? An attempt to distract from troubles at home?

Every media publication in the world, from the Economist to the New York Times, admits to varying degrees of mystification.

On one hand, we have more information at our fingertips than the vast majority of history’s world leaders. Advanced satellite imagery, widely available to the casual layman, maps practically every inch of the earth at least twice a day with magnification strong enough to read the band name on a tee shirt from space.

On the other hand, there seems to be a new type of informational warfare at work in modern society.

Vast content farms are always trying to reach a “saturation point” with some narrative or other, pushing it at the behest of a world power, political party or powerful corporation. Social media platforms and corporate media outlets have a tendency to highlight the most sensational, the most hyperbolic and hyperventilating takes on everything from recipe writing to world politics.

Wading through it all is difficult on a normal day. With war looming as a possibility, however hopefully remote, navigating the choppy waters of our Information Age media landscape reaches perfect storm level.

Given our first advantage of readily available information, major world powers are finding it much more difficult, even impossible, to conduct military operations in secret. There are photos of Russia’s build-up of 150,000+ troops along the Ukraine border, for instance; just for starters. Western powers have a shocking amount of publicly-available data on the movements of the Russian military.

But for every scrap of information on the internet, there is an equal and opposite amount of misinformation. Perhaps more.

Knowing clandestine military action, and a surprise attack out of view of the international community, is now impossible, Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to be manipulating that situation to some advantage.

Pretending to be preparing to invade Ukraine looks exactly like preparing to invade Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, Kremlin spokespeople, and even Russia’s close political ally China, all angrily deny any Russian designs on annexing Ukraine (exactly the same way Russia did to the Crimea in 2014, but how dare you suggest such a thing).

If that’s true, the international community is still left with a burning question: Why make it look like Russia is preparing to invade Ukraine?

Earlier this week, the Russian government denied it was planning anything with regards to Ukraine; but, oh incidentally, Russia’s routine military maneuvers were concluded in that region and troops were leaving anyway. In recent days, the opposite seems to have happened.

“We’ve seen some of those troops inch closer to that border,” said U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Thursday, speaking from NATO headquarters in Belgium. “We see them fly in more combat and support aircraft.”

“We see them sharpen their readiness in the Black Sea,” Austin continued. “We even see them stocking up their blood supplies. You don’t do these sorts of things for no reason, and you certainly don’t do them if you’re getting ready to pack up and go home.”

State Department Spokesperson Ned Price warned early this week that the Russian government might be planning a false flag operation, using crisis actors, fake video and other falsified evidence to justify retaliation.

With the news today accusing pro-Ukraine forces of a shelling that hit a Russian kindergarten, wounding two teachers, NATO members are nervously wondering if just such an operation is underway.

“We have reason to believe that they are engaged in a false-flag operation to have an excuse to go in,” President Biden told the press on Thursday. “Every indication we have is they are prepared to go into Ukraine, attack Ukraine.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin is attempting all this in a world where CBS News reporting on the escalating conflict can publish an excerpt like the following: “Satellite imagery shows a recently constructed pontoon bridge over a river in Belarus very near the border, and British officials have said Russia is also building field hospitals on Russian soil near the Ukrainian frontier.”

With the additional news that the #2 most senior U.S. diplomat in its Embassy in Russia has been expelled by Russian authorities, world governments are becoming even more nervous.

A cyber attack was also carried out against the Ukraine this week, though it certainly wasn’t the first. In January, hackers penetrated Ukraine’s systems and simultaneously splashed an ominous message across numerous Ukraine government websites: “Be afraid and expect the worst.”

Military and intelligence experts on at least three continents have advised that any invasion of Russian troops into Ukraine is likely to be preceded by a cyber attack on critical systems and infrastructure.

This situation has increasingly revealed the sage wisdom of President Joe Biden, who has taken no small amount of criticism in the press for his tough talk during this tense time. Time has borne out Biden’s prognostications thus far, however, and Russian President Vladimir Putin looks erratic and guilty.

Things have changed since Russia “annexed” Crimea in 2014; this time, whatever Vladimir Putin’s plans were with regards to the Ukraine, he has been outmatched and outfoxed by time, technology and Joe Biden.

(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)