The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

U.S. says Putin could use ‘false flag’ as excuse for war. Similar accusations have defined Putin’s career.

A Ukrainian soldier talks to the media on Feb. 17 outside a kindergarten that military officials said was damaged by shelling in Stanytsia Luhanska, in the Luhansk region of Ukraine. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

More than two decades ago, a series of deadly apartment bombings, purportedly by separatists, drew Russian troops into war. Then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s popularity surged in the wake of his response to the terrorist attacks. He soon became Russia’s president.

In the many years since 1999, allegations have lingered that the attacks on Russian civilians were actually a “false flag” carried out by forces loyal to Putin, blamed on Chechen militants to ensure his grip on power. For many in the Russian opposition, the apartment bombings were to Putin’s Russia what the Reichstag fire was for Nazi Germany.

Such accusations marked the start of a trend. From Chechnya to Ukraine, from terrorist attacks to cyberattacks, Putin’s Russia has been accused time and again of secretly carrying out acts that it blamed on others. The broader aim, some experts and former U.S. officials say, is to create confusion with dueling narratives.

“Russia can release 10 falsities in the time it takes the White House to craft one careful truth,” said Jeffrey Edmonds, who served as Russia director for the National Security Council under Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump and is now a senior researcher at the CNA think tank in Arlington, Va.

In a shift, U.S. officials have begun openly accusing Russia of planning a false-flag attack to justify an invasion of Ukraine. Speaking at the U.N. 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 unleash “a real attack using chemical weapons.”

Such allegations go back decades.

Apartment bombings

False-flag attacks have been discussed for centuries. Russian use of them long predates Putin — the Soviet Union invaded Finland in 1939 after detonating shells in its own territory.

But whispers about Putin stand out in that history. His path to power coincided with an alleged false-flag plot of enormous scale. In September 1999, apartment bombings in Moscow and other Russian cities left more than 300 people dead. The attacks were blamed on extremists from Chechnya, a majority-Muslim region that had broken away from Russia after a brutal war between 1994 and 1996.

Putin, installed as prime minister that year, spearheaded a military response that ultimately saw Russia take back Chechnya. But almost immediately, a confusing set of circumstances surrounding a bomb scare in the city of Ryazan gave rise to theories that Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), a successor of the Soviet-era KGB, was behind the bombings.

Historians disagree on whether the weight of evidence supports this theory. The Russian government has denied it, and one key proponent of the theory, former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko, was assassinated in London.

Chechnya

Russian forces were accused of false-flag operations during the Chechen war itself. In late January 2001, two Russian newspapers published stories about a former noncommissioned Russian army officer named Vasily Kalinkin who had deserted to join Chechen rebels in 1991 and received training in terrorism tactics in Afghanistan, from an instructor named “Bill.”

The newspapers reported that Kalinkin had been planning to carry out a potentially catastrophic terrorist attack on the Volga Hydroelectric Station before he turned himself in to Russian authorities. In a subsequent news conference, he linked the plot to the United States and Osama bin Laden.

Russian journalists argued that the supposed plot was full of holes. In their book “The New Nobility: The Restoration of Russia’s Security State and the Enduring Legacy of the KGB,” Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan argued that it had the markings of “active measures” by Soviets, primarily in operations abroad, to use political warfare to influence the course of events in a foreign country.

“What was most telling was that the story appears to have been printed by two of the largest newspapers in Russia almost exactly as the FSB had wanted it to read, despite the lack of supporting evidence,” Soldatov and Borogan wrote.

Georgia

U.S. officials have also pointed to an incident in Georgia as an example of a Russian false-flag attack. “In 2008, Russia sent unmarked soldiers to stir unrest in Georgia,” said an article published Jan. 24 on the website of the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi. “When Georgia’s government responded, Russia invaded.”

The events that year resulted in a short and decisive war, with Russian forces taking over much of its smaller neighbor, a former Soviet republic. Afterward, the Russian parliament granted diplomatic recognition to two breakaway Georgian regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and expanded its military infrastructure in the country.

Former U.S. officials including former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and Fiona Hill, then a national intelligence officer, have said that the United States warned Georgian officials to not respond to the provocations from Russian-backed groups in South Ossetia. However, Georgian officials did respond, prompting the Russian invasion.

Hacking

Western officials say that in recent years hackers backed by the Russian state have used false-flag tactics to mask their motives and prevent any attempt to identify the perpetrators of cyberattacks.

A cyberattack during the Opening Ceremonies of the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea caused significant disruptions, with attendees unable to print their tickets and seats left empty as a result. The attackers used North Korean IP addresses and other tactics.

U.S. officials later told The Washington Post that the Russian military agency GRU 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 has said that Russian hackers began using “disguises” as early as 2014, when they targeted Ukraine’s Central Election Commission under the guise of activists accusing the government of corruption.

Ukraine

During the annexation of Crimea in 2014, armed men appeared on the Ukrainian peninsula, claiming to be “self-defense groups” that wanted the territory ceded to Russia. Locals began to call them “Little Green Men” — a reference to the green uniforms they wore that looked suspiciously like Russian military uniforms.

Since then, Edmonds said, such tactics have barely slowed: “They’ve been building this for a long time. It’s like one continuous false-flag operation. It just gets turned on and off periodically.”

Even so, the scope of the allegations being made by Russia against Ukraine suggests a potential leap in intensity. In a video released Friday, the head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic in Ukraine’s Donbas region said that the threat of military action by Ukrainian forces meant they were resorting to a mass evacuation.

Putin also accused Ukraine of “genocide” in the separatist east during a news conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Tuesday. Russian officials used similar language before the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008.

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