by Gaia Dempsey, CEO at Metaculus
Today, the world’s attention is riveted by the intensifying military brinkmanship playing out on the Russian-Ukrainian border. People are turning to geopolitical experts and analysts of all stripes to understand whether Russia will invade Ukraine — but few know about public forecasting platforms, which allow people to make quantitative predictions about future events, get scored on their performance over time, and compete for prizes in accuracy tournaments.
Metaculus is an open forecasting platform with a track record of making thousands of predictions on societal and scientific topics since 2015. Its unique approach brings the scientific method of modeling and prediction to critical, complex domains that affect public life.
To find a signal in all the noise, Metaculus aggregates the predictions of the crowd and gives more weight to those with the best track records and the most forecasting skill. The result is the Metaculus Prediction, a statistical bellwether that is hard to beat in terms of accuracy, and provides a great deal of information. Few quantitative predictive measures like it exist, least of all ones that can help us understand the most important and complex issues outside of markets. Decision-makers and the public would do well to pay attention.
Metaculus Odds Favor a Russian Invasion
The current Metaculus Prediction gives Russia a 65% chance of invading new territory in Ukraine in 2022. This is 14 percentage points below the current community median of 79% — both are fluctuating rapidly, but overall steadily increasing over the last week. A high degree of uncertainty remains, but an invasion currently seems likelier than not according to this aggregation of over 4,500 forecasts made by over 900 forecasters.
Forecasters pay attention to a wide variety of signals, and their aggregate forecast updates in response to changes in the environment. Individual signals on their own are rarely decisive — indeed, the value of the crowd’s prediction is that it aggregates all of the information considered to be important into a single metric. Below, we’ll look at the most important recent events that forecasters believe may affect the final outcome.
Signals indicating an increasing likelihood of invasion:
- There’s significant Russian ground and air power buildup near the border: Russia now allegedly has more than 60% of all its ground combat power and more than 50% of its air power close to the Ukraine border.” Here, a video shows a column of tanks near the Russian town of Striguny, 17-minutes from the border.
- The US Embassy has accused Russia of shelling a kindergarten in the Donbas: A message yesterday morning said “Russia’s shelling of Stanytsia Luhanska in Ukrainian government-controlled territory in Donbas hit a kindergarten, injured two teachers, and knocked out power in the village.”
- Russian units appear ready for attack: Russian military units, including long-range artillery and rocket launchers, had reportedly left their assembly areas to “move into attack positions” a few days ago with 40–50% now in attack positions as of today.
- The US in both actions and words appears certain that a large-scale Russian invasion will happen: President Biden said today he is “convinced” that the decision to attack has been made. A few days ago, the US Embassy moved operations out of Kyiv — Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s statement that the US is “in the process of temporarily relocating […] Embassy operations in Ukraine from our Embassy in Kyiv to Lviv due to the dramatic acceleration in the buildup of Russian forces.”
- Ukrainian financial and communication infrastructure is under attack: This reportedly includes ATM’s and Ministry of Defense websites. Forecasters also point to tactical similarities between the current attacks on Ukrainian government websites and DDoS attacks on Georgian government sites in 2008.
- Putin had made a “genocide” claim: Putin now claims that genocide is occurring in the eastern Donbas, paving the way for further aggression. Russian media are reporting a ‘thwarted terror attack’ and a car bomb explosion in Donbas.
- Russia appears to be preparing to quell opposition after an invasion: Four officials have claimed that Russia is preparing an assassination and arrest campaign targeting Ukrainian political figures who would oppose Russian control of Ukraine.
- Russia’s parliament proposed separatist quasi-states in Ukraine be recognized as part of Russia: The Russian Duma has voted to put a proposal to Putin to recognize Russian the so-called People’s Republics in Donetsk and Luhansk.
- Russia evacuates its Ukrainian embassy: Russia told their diplomatic staff at their Ukraine embassy to leave the country.
- At least 34 countries have asked their citizens to evacuate from Ukraine: Russia isn’t alone — 34 countries have asked their citizens to leave Ukraine, and the list keeps growing. The Israeli foreign minister reportedly said after talks with the Biden administration that “the window for getting Israeli citizens out of Ukraine is very narrow.”
- Satellite imagery highlights new infrastructure built by Russian military units: Yesterday, a new bridge seems to have been constructed on the Pripyat river in Belarus, near the Russia-Ukraine border.
- The EU is preparing for life without Russian energy: Comments made yesterday (2/16) by EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen regarding Europe’s preparedness for an invasion: “We are also ready in case Russia uses energy as a weapon. Several countries are ready to step up their exports of LNG to the EU. We already reinforced our pan-European pipeline and electricity interconnector network.”
- Estonian intelligence believes an attack is likely: “Russia ‘likely’ to launch ‘limited’ military attack against Ukraine, according to the Estonian intelligence chief.
At the same time, there are signals indicating a decreasing likelihood of invasion:
- Possible Russian troop withdrawal?: Russia claimed to have been withdrawing some troops after drills around Ukraine.
- But, this claim is contested. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken says there has been “no meaningful pullback” of Russian forces, and the announced withdrawal seems to have even moved some units closer to the border.
- Market recovery?: Some markets have already begun to recover, suggesting a possible de-escalation of the conflict.
- However, some are still tumbling, which could be an indication of high or still rising tensions.
- Russian media appears to promote de-escalation: Top Russian media news stories do not seem to be preparing the public for war. For instance, one story claimed that the US and NATO do not threaten Russia, and another source reported that Russia does not plan to move its embassy in Ukraine from Kiev.
- Nevertheless, there are state media stories that run counter to this narrative, so it should be considered with caution.
- US and EU plans for sanctions against Russia are softening: As the U.S. and European officials finalize sanctions, they do not include banning Russia from the SWIFT financial system. This could be a sign of increased willingness to cooperate.
- China hasn’t evacuated their Ukrainian embassy: China opposed NATO expansion alongside Russia a few weeks ago, their Foreign Ministry claims to be “closely monitoring” the situation on the ground in Ukraine, and their embassy appears to be continuing to operate normally.
The forecasting community are continuing to monitor the situation closely and update based on the latest events. Stay up to date with new forecasts on the Russia-Ukraine conflict by visiting the Metaculus platform.