Russian ‘False Flag’ to Justify Ukraine Invasion

Western intelligence agencies continue to predict an invasion under absurd pretexts.

WaPo (“New intelligence suggests Russia plans a ‘false flag’ operation to trigger an invasion of Ukraine“):

The United States has obtained new intelligence that suggests Russia is planning to stage an attack that it would falsely blame on Ukraine to justify invading the country, possibly as early as next week, according to multiple U.S. and European officials who have reviewed the intelligence or been briefed on it.

The intelligence about a “false flag” operation was discussed in a quickly convened meeting in the White House Situation Room on Thursday evening and helped prompt renewed calls from the Biden administration for all Americans to leave Ukraine immediately, according to officials familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence.

The precise timing and nature of the Russian operation was unclear. The United States had already accused Russia of planning to film a fake attack against Russian territory or Russian-speaking people in eastern Ukraine. The new intelligence is distinct from that alleged operation, the officials said.

Officials in multiple capitals concurred that the intelligence appeared to show that Russia is in the final stages of preparing to mount an invasion, which analysts have said could leave up to 50,000 civilians dead or wounded and lead to the fall of the government in Kyiv within a few days.

“Moscow is actively trying to create a casus belli,” or a justification for war, a Western official said.

On Friday, national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters that the continuing buildup of Russian forces and other information gleaned from intelligence reporting “makes it clear to us that there is a very distinct possibility that Russia will choose to act militarily. And there is reason to believe that could happen on a reasonably swift time frame.”

Sullivan alluded to the new intelligence. “We are firmly convinced that the Russians, should they decide to move forward with an invasion, are looking hard at the creation of a false-flag operation, something that they generate and try to blame on the Ukrainians as a trigger for military action. And we are calling that out publicly because we do believe that if Russia chooses to do that, they should be held to account.

Sullivan said that Russian President Vladimir Putin had not made a “final decision” on whether to order an invasion. Other officials concurred with that assessment but added that the new intelligence suggested an invasion was now more a question of when, not if.

The “false flag operation” has become so associated with fringe conspiracy movements in recent years that its invocation naturally causes one’s Spidey sense to tingle. But what’s being described here is what has come to be known as “gray zone” operations in defense circles and, indeed, very much mirrors what Putin and company did when they invaded Crimea with “little green men” in 2014.

At some point, plausible deniability just isn’t plausible. No one that matters would believe the Russian propaganda here and it will therefore have no real bearing on the consequences. I continue to believe that neither the United States nor its NATO allies are prepared to go to war with Russia over Ukraine. But these actions would only strengthen resolve to impose the strongest sanctions regime available and otherwise further ostracize Russia from the international community.

FILED UNDER: National Security, Russia
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Michael Reynolds says:

    Setting aside the human toll, a full-scale Russian invasion may be the best outcome for the US.

    1) It energizes NATO.
    2) Increases European defense spending.
    3) Kills Nordstream 2.
    4) May bring Sweden if not Finland into NATO.
    5) Bleeds Russia militarily.
    6) And economically.
    7) And may well serve as a cautionary lesson to Xi about the downside of invading Taiwan.

    And if the invasion begins after February 20 – closing ceremony for Xi’s Olympics – Putin’s servitude to Xi will be unmistakable.

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  2. Flat Earth Luddite says:

    What this country needs is a short, victorious war…

    Possibly apocryphal, attributed to Vacheslav von Plehve prior to the eve of the Russo-Japanese War.

    Humans continue to demonstrate an inability to pay attention past “oooh, shiny!”

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  3. Gustopher says:

    At some point, plausible deniability just isn’t plausible. No one that matters would believe the Russian propaganda here and it will therefore have no real bearing on the consequences.

    It might be aimed at shoring up support at home, so it stays a popular war. Sure, Russia is an autocracy, but it’s still easier to run if you’re popular.

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  4. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Gustopher:

    Or try and keep the opponents on the sideline. Unlike the Crimea, the Russian people are showing no enthusiasm for a Ukraine war. While the Chinese government controls the news, Russians still have access to a number of independent news sources. Add in the distrust for the government that is baked in to any autocracy and will be hard for Putin to keep support when the body bags come home. This is a great example of a war cooked up by the elite.

    1
  5. Kurtz says:

    At some point, plausible deniability just isn’t plausible. No one that matters would believe the Russian propaganda here and it will therefore have no real bearing on the consequences.

    I’m skeptical and withholding judgment on this.

    Sure, maybe nobody who matters in the current administration. But the next one? And the loudest parts of Congress and associated media?

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  6. dazedandconfused says:

    Old saying in the American West, “Politics is for arguin’, but water’s for fightin’.”

    The Crimea water crisis.

    There are several international agreements on water in the world in which it is assured that if the water is cut off there will be war. Israel has something like that with Jordan and Syria. More recently, it is rumored the Ethiopians proposed a large dam project which would’ve diverted a lot of water from the Nile above Aswan to Eithiopia, and the Egyptian’s assured them that if they did it it would be war.

    The Ukrainians cut off the water to Crimea and there is no replacement. The Crimean aquifers simply don’t have enough. Russia will have to move many thousands of people out as the agriculture which has sustained them will shrink to a small fraction of what it was before the annexation. The extra water in the Ukraine is being dumped in the river. They won’t even sell it to Russia.

    I suspect this is what’s driving all this. If Russia has determined they are willing to fight for it then it may be they have deliberately limited discussions to back-channels, in order to allow a face-saving way out for Zelinski. This is similar to how the removal of the missiles in Turkey during the Cuban Missile Crisis went down. Frankly, I feel the Ukrainians are un-wisely taking a strong anti-Russian posture. A better posture might be a positive working relationship with their powerful neighbor and the people in the disputed areas really do feel more Russian than Ukrainian. They want nothing to do with the new Ukraine, so let it go.

    If true the deployments in the north are simply to divert military forces to the defense of Kyiv, and the invasion would be limited to taking over the dam and the reservoir that suppled Crimea.

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  7. JohnSF says:

    But any “false flag” will be eagerly seized on by the far-right, the far-left and indeed “useful idiots” in between.
    They have already taken on board all the Kremlin “talking points”:
    – “NATO promised not to expand…”
    – “Ukraine nationalist are fascists…”
    – “Russians are being persecuted…”
    – “Minsk agreement…” (Russian version thereof)
    – “Capitalism, imperialism, colonialism, militarism, FASCISM!!
    – “whatabout Yemen…
    – “whatabout Palestine…
    – “whatabout this, whatabout that, whatabout the other…”

    And a fair slice of the media, faced with actually having to decide between reality and insanity will try to split the difference.

    Stop the War , the swuppers and the sad old Sov-nostalgist tankies have already ramped up in the UK.
    And the social media campaign is well under way.
    “A far away country of which we know nothing.”

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  8. Michael Reynolds says:

    @dazedandconfused:
    I think that’s bullshit. If water were the issue why would Russian troops be massed in Belarus? It doesn’t take encirclement on three sides and 125,000 soldiers to secure the water supply from the Dnieper.

    The Russians are very good at lying, and there are any number of ‘media’ outlets on Left and Right ready to magnify Putin’s lies.

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  9. Sleeping Dog says:

    @dazedandconfused:

    Given the number of Russia watchers that I’ve read over the last month on this crisis and Putin’s motives, none have mentioned Crimean water crisis. That maybe a real issue, but it isn’t driving this. Putin knows as well as anyone else, that the solution to the water problem would be to take it to the UN and/or World Court. A resolution of the water issue, could be a good gambit in allowing Putin and Ukraine to stand down, but since it hasn’t been brought up as a major issue…

    Putin is holding a gun to the head of Ukraine in order to change the post-Soviet security arrangements, but he has badly miscalculated.

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  10. Mikey says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    The Russians are very good at lying, and there are any number of ‘media’ outlets on Left and Right ready to magnify Putin’s lies.

    Russian stooge Tulsi Gabbard was on Russian stooge Tucker Carlson’s show blathering about how Biden could just end all this in a shower of rainbow-farting unicorns if he would only pledge never to allow Ukraine to join NATO.

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  11. JohnSF says:

    @dazedandconfused:
    The Russian government asserts the people in the disputed Donbas areas feel Russian.
    Interesting, then, that those areas voted by 80% plus for independence in 1991.
    Indeed, even Crimea marginally voted in favour: 54%.

    If Russia wants to resolve a water dispute with Ukraine, it could try negotiating reasonably, rather than moving massive combat formations to the frontier, and attempting to manoeuvre the USA and NATO into imposing a settlement on Kiev.
    They could, for instance, offer in exchange to stop blocking the Straits of Kerch to Ukrainian shipping, which has massively effected exports from eastern Ukraine.

    And if Moscow is seeking a constructive resolution, it may care to reconsider such statements as Lavrov’s

    “a collective response from the European Union to Russian security proposals would lead to a breakdown in talks”

    To which the collective European response tends to be “£#&K off”

    Oh, and Putin’s statemen. perhaps the creepiest EVER from a head of stat.:
    Insisting that Ukraine must comply with the Russian version and interpretation of the Minsk agreement:

    “Whether you like it or don’t like it, bear with it, my beauty,”

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  12. dazedandconfused says:

    @Sleeping Dog:
    He won’t take it to such a court, just like the Israelis and Egyptians didn’t trust their fate to such a body as there is no inherent right for one nation’s rights to another nation’s water. The issue is in a heck of a lot of cases negotiated agreements made under threat of violence.

    Water’s for fightin’.

  13. dazedandconfused says:

    @Michael Reynolds:
    You must have skipped over my last paragraph.

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  14. JohnSF says:

    And right on cue Jeremy bloody Corbyn pops up on talkRadio UK:

    Former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has said NATO’s “build-up of military personnel” in Eastern Europe is to blame for the current tensions between Ukraine and Russia.
    The video below was featured in a live stream titled: ‘No War in Ukraine: Stop NATO Expansion’.

    May God forgive the Labour Party membership for forcing the British people to choose between him and Johnson.

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  15. JohnSF says:

    @dazedandconfused:
    He might have considered that before invading Ukraine.
    He could always consider this reasonable solution: leave.

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  16. JohnSF says:

    If Putin’s primary concern is water supply to the Ukraine, or NATO expansion, or NATO forces in Eastern Europe, or NATO theatre nuclear weapons, why the incessant insistence that the solution must be the “return to Ukraine” of the Donbas oblasts under Russian terms?
    (A complete 180 from the Moscow position on Crimea, incidentally).

    The answer is that the primary Russian concern has nothing to do with water, or NATO, or any other chaff they are scattering.

    It is having a veto over Ukrainian policy by inserting Luhansk/Donetsk as a “poison pill” under the control of Moscow via local “militia” warlords. And that is not to forestall NATO, which is not on the cards, but to block increasing Ukrainian economic/legal integration with the EU.
    It was the trade treaty of 2014 that triggered invasion then, not any putative NATO expansion.
    Moscow cannot abide the loss of Ukraine to the Kremlin-centric “kleptosphere” of post-Soviet oligarchies.

    IMO Putins’ nightmare is less NATO, more the EU Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism.

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  17. Sleeping Dog says:

    @dazedandconfused:

    Still not seeing any evidence that water for the Crimea is what’s driving Putin. All Russia’s public statements have been about security arrangements and Putin’s need to control Russia’s near abroad.

    1
  18. dazedandconfused says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    To be expected, per my post.

    Only the insiders heard anything about removing the missiles in Turkey during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

  19. dazedandconfused says:

    @JohnSF:

    And the Ukrainians could admit they lost that war.

  20. JohnSF says:

    And only the real insiders heard about role of the break-down of negotiations over Serbian pig exports to Austria in being the real trigger for the First World War.
    Not.

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  21. JohnSF says:

    @dazedandconfused:

    Ukrainians could admit they lost

    I suspect the Ukrainians are fully aware of that.
    And also that Russia is discontent they did not lose enough.
    pseudo Putin:
    “Why can’t those stubborn peasants just SUBMIT to their rightful masters?”

    Russian victory:
    In 2011 84% of Ukrainians had a “favourable” view of Russia.
    39% of Ukraine trade was with CIS countries (i.e. primarily Russia).
    In 2021 72% viewed Russia as “hostile”
    10% of trade with CIS.

    Such victory! Such triumph! Much great success!

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  22. dazedandconfused says:

    @JohnSF:

    Perhaps the Russians simply want the water turned back on and would be willing to pay a fee for it. If that’s the case the Ukrainians would be fools to decline, would they not?

  23. JohnSF says:

    @dazedandconfused:
    Perhaps.
    If that is the case, Russia might try negotiating along those line with Ukraine.
    Rather than attempting to maneuver the US or Germany or whoever into effectively being Moscow’s bailiff in these matters.

    After all, Russia could offer up quite a few things on its side for a bargain:
    – ending interference with shipping via the Kerch Straits (incidentally, more wars have started in Europe over water transit rights than irrigation, no matter what may have occurred in the American West)
    – ending attempts to use gas pipeline supplies to coerce Ukraine and Europe
    – and just maybe considering stopping financing, supplying and at times manning with “little green men” (aka Russian troops) an ongoing low level war in the Donbas.

  24. dazedandconfused says:

    @JohnSF:
    I’ve already explained why the negotiation on the critical issue might happen only “under the rose”.

    I fear the Russians have decided that if Ukraine is going to be abjectly hostile towards Russia they must be taught a lesson. This would not be terribly different from the situation which developed after the war of American independence and England. For the most part the English were willing to let bygones be bygones and get back to business. However, a spanking was necessary due to the war of 1812. Got Washington DC burned and THEN it was back to business as usual. To this day most Americans think we won that war, btw. The Brits allowed our politicians a bit of face-saving room is why that is so.

    1
  25. JohnSF says:

    @dazedandconfused:

    I’ve already explained why the negotiation on the critical issue might happen only “under the rose”.

    “Might” is doing a lot of work here.
    You have argued that that is the case; perhaps. Perhaps not.

    There were very good reasons why the “Turkey missiles deal” didn’t show up in public (both because Kennedy was domestically vulnerable, and because Khrushchev was being cheated).
    I cannot see any genuine reason why such a case applies here.

    You argue both that the Russians are not being open about this to allow Kiev to “save face”, and that they are willing to pursue the “save Zelinsky’s face” tactic to the point of launching an invasion.
    Come on, you are tying yourself in knots here.

    If you are going to bring up historical parallels re. the UK, then our relations with the Irish Republic are probably a better one. Is the UK entitled to dictate the policies of Dublin?

    …if Ukraine is going to be abjectly hostile towards Russia they must be taught a lesson

    A approach that has worked so well for so many others in history. Not.

    Re. water supply, a Ukrainian: “We have a melted reactor core at Chernobyl that’s doing no one any good. We might drop it in Lake Kakhova as a going away present.”
    (That’s a bad taste Ukrainian joke, by the way. Ukrainians tend to mordant sense of humour)

    2
  26. DK says:

    @Mikey: Tulsi Gabbard and Tucker Carlson both believe Russia and the Murdochs should dictate US foreign policy. Because they’re stupid or malevolent? Both?

    Russians will let Putin send their children to spill blood in Ukraine. American parents will not. We won’t be there, so bloodshed in Ukraine would be 100% Putin’s fault. It’s not really about NATO. That diversion can’t overcome that there’s 130,000+ troops at Ukraine’s borders. Because Putin is scared that half of Russian youth despise him but like European and American culture. Gotta try tho, I guess.

    1
  27. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @DK: Trust me on this, Americans who will advocate for “going over there and teaching the Ruskies a thang or two” will not be allowing their children to volunteer to serve in the military–anywhere whatsoever. The military is for kids who don’t have opportunity otherwise.

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  28. Mikey says:

    @DK: Carlson is a full-on authoritarian white supremacist, and enthralled with Putin and Hungary’s Orban, so it’s pretty easy to figure him out. He’s been shilling for Russia for a long time.

    Gabbard is either a useful idiot or actually compromised. It’s harder to figure out with her.

  29. dazedandconfused says:

    @JohnSF:

    I’m not at all arguing the Russians are not being honest, in fact for the scenario I describe at some point the Russians will be entirely honest, the ultimatum will come, but if it is made public it will be by Zelinsky, not the Russians. They would leave the decision of whether or not to make it public up to him. They didn’t go around bragging they had got Kennedy to remove the missiles in Turkey either.