The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

U.S. accuses Russia of planning to film false attack as pretext for Ukraine invasion

Russian and Belarusian tanks take part in a joint military drill, in an image released Feb. 2. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service/AP)

Moscow is considering filming a fake attack against Russian territory or Russian-speaking people by Ukrainian forces as a pretext to invade its neighbor, the Biden administration said Thursday, warning that the resulting propaganda footage could include “graphic scenes of a staged false explosion with corpses.”

Russia has already recruited the people who would be involved in the fabricated attack video, and Russian intelligence is intimately involved in the effort, a senior Biden administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity under rules set by the administration.

“We believe that Russia would produce a very graphic propaganda video, which would include corpses and actors that would be depicting mourners and images of destroyed locations, as well as military equipment at the hands of Ukraine or the West, even to the point where some of this equipment would be made to look like it was Western-supplied,” Defense Department press secretary John Kirby said Thursday during a briefing at the Pentagon.

The Russian disinformation effort would be “right out of their playbook,” Kirby said, noting that most activity of that nature is approved at the highest levels of the Russian government. Kirby said the Biden administration felt it was important, upon learning of such plans, “to call it out.”

The allegations by the Biden administration were met with pushback due to the lack of specificity and evidence. At a briefing, State Department spokesman Ned Price was asked repeatedly if the United States would provide evidence supporting the alleged Russian plot. He declined to do so, citing the need to protect intelligence sources and methods.

When asked about the level of confidence Washington has in the information, Price said that “this is derived from intelligence in which we have confidence … otherwise we would not be making it public in the way we are.” He said the United States does not know if the Russians will use the alleged video but that the U.S. disclosure was designed to prevent it from happening.

Disagreements emerge over timing of sanctions on Russia as Kremlin shrugs off the threat

Russian officials for weeks have been claiming that Ukraine, fueled by the West with weapons and a hunger for war, may attempt to retake separatist territory in the country’s east or launch another type of attack, even though Kyiv has denied any such plans. U.S. officials have read the comments as part of an effort by Moscow to lay the groundwork for a possible invasion on the pretext of a falsified Ukrainian attack.

Thursday’s accusation is the latest in a string of announcements by the U.S. and British governments aimed at preemptively disrupting Russian plots to destabilize Ukraine. Last month, the Biden administration accused Russia of sending a group of operatives trained in sabotage and urban warfare into eastern Ukraine, possibly to launch a “false flag” attack against Russian separatist proxy forces and pin it on Kyiv. The British government later alleged Russia was organizing a scheme to destabilize Ukraine and install a Russia-friendly government in Kyiv. None of the allegations has been accompanied by a release of the underlying evidence.

The Kremlin dismissed the latest U.S. allegation. This is not the first time materials about Russia’s “invasion” of Ukraine have been published in the United States, but nothing has come of them, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the Russian state news agency Tass.

Peskov also assailed President Biden’s decision to deploy 3,000 U.S. troops to Romania, Poland and Germany as a sign of reassurance for NATO allies. The Kremlin spokesman accused the United States of “escalating tensions on the European continent” with the deployment.

Russia has massed more than 100,000 troops around the borders of Ukraine, prompting the Biden administration to warn that Russian President Vladimir Putin could send his forces into Ukrainian territory at any moment. The White House has said the United States does not have information that Putin has made a decision to invade but has cited evidence of advance planning by the Russian government.

Soldiers are on high alert at Ukraine’s northeastern border, near Kharkiv, amid a build-up of Russian troops on the other side. (Video: Whitney Shefte, Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post, Photo: Serhiy Morgunov/The Washington Post)

In recent weeks, Russian troops and materiel have been flowing into neighboring Belarus, which shares a 674-mile border with Ukraine, in preparation for what will be the second stage of joint Russian-Belarusian exercises slated to begin Feb. 10. Military analysts worry the exercises could be a ruse to position Russian forces along Ukraine’s northern border in advance of a new invasion.

As it weighs action in Ukraine, Russia showcases its new military prowess

In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine and fueled a separatist conflict in the country’s east. Russian officials and commentators justified the actions by claiming the country’s Russian-speaking population was being persecuted by a nationalist Ukrainian government and needed to be rescued by Moscow.

In December of last year, Putin revived some of that rhetoric, publicly saying a Ukrainian “genocide” was targeting ethnic Russians in the country’s eastern Donbas region. The comments prompted alarm among U.S. officials who feared he was once again formulating a casus belli ahead of possible new military action against Ukraine.

Russian disinformation efforts regularly demonize Ukrainians as nationalist Nazi sympathizers perpetrating crimes against ethnic Russians. In one notorious piece of propaganda in 2014, Russian state-controlled Channel One aired a staged interview in which a woman falsely claimed to have witnessed Ukrainians crucifying a 3-year-old child in the eastern Russian-speaking city of Slovyansk.

The disinformation is often designed to muddy the waters for Russia’s domestic audience rather than make a convincing case worldwide. After Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was downed over separatist-held territory in eastern Ukraine by a Russian surface-to-air missile, for instance, Russian state news initially suggested the Ukrainian air force had been trying to shoot down Putin’s plane but accidentally hit the Boeing aircraft.

The propaganda video that the Biden administration accused Russia of planning would accuse Ukrainians of committing grave crimes against Russian-speaking people, officials said.

“The video will be released to underscore a threat to Russia’s security and to underpin military operations,” the senior administration official said. “This video, if released, could provide Putin the spark he needs to initiate and justify military operations against Ukraine.”

The Russian government has expressed outrage over Ukraine’s recent use of Bayraktar drones supplied by Turkey, a member of NATO. The senior administration official said it is possible that such drones “could be included in this video as a means to implicate NATO in the attack.”

The Biden administration briefed U.S. senators on Thursday on the intelligence about the video as well as the broader threat Russian forces are posing to Ukraine.

“Russia is in the process of producing movies and producing news releases, producing false proof that the Ukrainians are doing something to provoke them,” James E. Risch (R-Idaho), the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters after the briefing.

Planning for the video comes as the Russian parliament advances a law that would recognize the separatist territories in eastern Ukraine as independent states. The senior administration official said that if Moscow changes its recognition posture, it could then claim that the push for independence led Ukraine to attack the territory.

“To build the case for independence, Russian politicians are advancing this legislation on the false basis that Ukraine is preparing to forcibly retake this territory and that Kyiv has systematically denied local residents of their basic rights,” the senior administration official said, noting that Russia could portray military action as “coming at the request of a sovereign government for assistance.”

The staged video is part of a long-running effort by the Russian government to destabilize Ukraine through disinformation campaigns, officials said.

A separate operation uncovered by officials in a Western government allied with the United States found that the Russian military intelligence service, GRU, late last year covertly created a website masquerading as a portal set up by human rights advocates in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. The site spreads false allegations of genocide committed by the Ukrainian military and features a picture of what appears to be a mass grave, though it is unclear who is in the graves. A description accompanying the picture indicates it was taken in August 2014 in Luhansk, a separatist-held territory in eastern Ukraine.

The site was unveiled in late November at a news conference in Moscow hosted by a Russian government media center. The news conference featured officials and activists from Luhansk and another separatist-held territory. It was publicized in Russian state media, including on the RT television network and by the Tass news agency.

About a week later, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs pushed the narrative, tweeting out a link to the propaganda site, saying it held “evidence of crimes by Ukraine’s security services & information about those missing during the conflict in eastern #Ukraine.”

A special GRU unit known as 54777, the nerve center of Russia’s psychological warfare capability, created the site, said one of the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity.

“It’s part of the disinformation campaign to build this overall image that the Ukrainian government is committing genocide in Donbas to provide the pretext” for a possible attack, the official said. “They’re just building a case that Kyiv is somehow responsible for hurting the ethnic Russian population in the area.”

Dalton Bennett and Mike DeBonis in Washington and Isabelle Khurshudyan in Kyiv contributed to this report.