What are false flag attacks – and did Russia stage any to claim justification for invading Ukraine?

The Russian assault on Ukraine, which began in the early hours of Feb. 24, 2022, was launched after weeks of Russian disinformation that included false claims about Ukrainian terrorist attacks, assaults on civilians and military aggression against the self-proclaimed breakaway republics in eastern Ukraine.

Observers have been on the lookout for a Russian “false flag” attack, a highly visible event that Russia could use as justification for taking military action. False flag attacks are attacks by a government on its own forces to create the appearance of hostile action by an opponent, allowing the government to broadcast images to the world of its opponent’s supposed actions.

The Kremlin and pro-government propagandists on television and social media have put out a variety of claims accusing Ukraine of carrying out bombings, blaming Ukraine for nonexistent attacks and warning of nefarious future Ukrainian and Western plots, including false flag operations. The claims include a car bombing and an alleged attempt by Ukrainian saboteurs to blow up a chemical storage facility, both in separatist eastern Ukraine. The messaging is meant to create an impression of a Ukrainian onslaught and impending humanitarian crisis.

If Russia attempted actual false flag attacks, they were one element of a larger campaign to build a narrative about Ukrainian “provocations” – unwarranted actions that require a defensive and retaliatory response. Putin invoked this logic in his memorable speech that delivered his justifications for an invasion.

Yet even in that speech, which was laden with dubious historical claims, pent-up grievances and false accusations about the Ukrainian government, the recent upsurge in fighting in the Donbas region registered almost as an afterthought. This is in contrast to Russia’s invasion in the 2008 war with Georgia, which the Kremlin justified in terms of protecting “its” citizens from Georgian attacks. Given the lack of the pretense of a plausible rationale, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Kremlin is unconcerned about how the world views its invasion.

Capturing the (false) flag

In the past few weeks, U.S. officials have warned several times that Russia planned a false flag attack. Such an operation, they alleged, would give Russia the pretext to invade Ukraine by provoking shock and outrage.

By exposing this plan, the Biden administration sought to undermine its emotional power and stop the Kremlin from manufacturing a casus belli, or justification for war.

But false flag attacks aren’t what they used to be. With satellite photos and live video on the ground shared widely and instantly on the internet – and with journalists and armchair sleuths joining intelligence professionals in analyzing the information – it’s difficult to get away with false flag attacks today. And with the prevalence of disinformation campaigns, manufacturing a justification for war doesn’t require the expense…

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