Such accusations marked the beginning of a trend. From Chechnya to Ukraine, from terrorist attacks to cyberattacks, Putin’s Russia has repeatedly been accused of covertly committing acts it blames on others. The larger goal, according to some experts and former US officials, is to confuse dueling accounts.
“Russia can release 10 falsehoods in the time it takes the White House to hammer out a painstaking truth,” said Jeffrey Edmonds, who served as the National Security Council’s Russia director under Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump. and is now a senior researcher at the CNA Think Tank in Arlington, Virginia.
In a twist, US officials began openly accusing Russia of planning a false flag attack to justify an invasion of Ukraine. Speaking to the UN Security Council on Thursday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken suggested that Russia could fabricate a fake mass grave, stage an attack with actors or even launch “a real attack using ‘Chemical Weapons “.
Such allegations date back decades.
False flag attacks have been discussed for centuries. Their use by Russia long predates Putin – the Soviet Union invaded Finland in 1939 after exploding shells on its own territory.
But the whispers about Putin come out of this story. His path to power coincided with an alleged false flag plot of massive proportions. In September 1999, bomb attacks on apartments in Moscow and other Russian cities killed more than 300 people. The attacks were blamed on extremists from Chechnya, a Muslim-majority region that broke away from Russia after a brutal war between 1994 and 1996.
Putin, installed as prime minister that year, led a military response that eventually saw Russia retake Chechnya. But almost immediately, a confusing set of circumstances surrounding a bomb threat in the city of Ryazan gave rise to theories that Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), successor to the Soviet-era KGB, was at the helm. origin of the attacks.
Historians disagree on whether the weight of evidence supports this theory. The Russian government denied it, and one of the theory’s main proponents, former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko, was murdered in London.
Russian forces were accused of false flag operations during the Chechen war itself. In late January 2001, two Russian newspapers published articles about a former Russian army non-commissioned officer named Vasily Kalinkin who had deserted to join the Chechen rebels in 1991 and received training in terrorist tactics in Afghanistan from an instructor named “Bill”.
Newspapers reported that Kalinkin planned to carry out a potentially catastrophic terrorist attack on the Volga Hydroelectric Power Station before turning himself in to Russian authorities. At a later press conference, he linked the plot to the United States and Osama bin Laden.
“What was most telling was that the story appears to have been printed by two of Russia’s largest newspapers almost exactly as the FSB intended it to be read, despite the lack of supporting evidence,” wrote Soldatov and Borogan.
US officials also cited an incident in Georgia as an example of a Russian false flag attack. “In 2008, Russia sent undercover soldiers to stir up unrest in Georgia,” said a January 24 article on the website of the US Embassy in Tbilisi. “When the Georgian government responded, Russia invaded.”
The events of that year culminated in a short and decisive war, with Russian forces taking control of much of its smaller neighbor, a former Soviet republic. Subsequently, the Russian parliament granted diplomatic recognition to two Georgian breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and expanded its military infrastructure in the country.
Western officials say that in recent years, Russian state-backed hackers have used false flag tactics to obscure their motives and prevent attempts to identify perpetrators of cyberattacks.
A cyberattack during the opening ceremonies of the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea caused major disruption as attendees were unable to print their tickets and seats remained empty. The attackers used North Korean IP addresses and other tactics.
US officials later told the Washington Post that Russia’s GRU military agency appeared to be behind the attack, deliberately using the North Koreans as cover. The move came after the International Olympic Committee banned the Russian team from the Winter Games, citing doping violations.
Journalist Andy Greenberg said Russian hackers started using “disguises” as early as 2014when they targeted Ukraine’s Central Election Commission under the guise of activists accusing the government of corruption.
During the annexation of Crimea in 2014, gunmen appeared on the Ukrainian peninsula, posing as “self-defense groups” who wanted the territory ceded to Russia. Locals started calling them “Little Green Men” – a reference to the green uniforms they wore which looked suspiciously like Russian military uniforms.
Since then, Edmonds said, such tactics have barely slowed down: “They’ve been building this for a long time. It’s like an ongoing false flag operation. It turns on and off periodically.
Even so, the breadth of the allegations made by Russia against Ukraine suggests a potential leap in intensity. In a video released on Friday, the leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic in Ukraine’s Donbass region said the threat of military action by Ukrainian forces meant they were resorting to a mass evacuation.
Putin also accused Ukraine of “genocide” in the breakaway east during a press conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Tuesday. Russian officials used similar language before the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008.