The United States has accused Russia of plotting to fabricate an attack by Ukrainian forces that it could use as a pretext to take military action against its neighbour.
Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the scheme included the production of a graphic propaganda video that would show staged explosions and use corpses and actors depicting grieving mourners.
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“We’ve discussed this idea of false flags by the Russians before, we’ve made no secret of that,” Kirby said during a news briefing. “We do have information that the Russians are likely to want to fabricate a pretext for an invasion, which again, is right out of their playbook.”
The accusation comes amid weeks of tensions between Washington and Moscow over the Russian military’s deployment of about 100,000 troops near Ukraine’s northern and eastern borders.
The troop presence and uncertainty have unnerved Ukrainians and hurt the country’s economy, while raising concerns in the US and Europe that Russia may be preparing to invade. Russia has denied the allegation, but has vehemently opposed Ukraine’s efforts to join NATO.
Moscow also wants security guarantees that the US-led alliance will stop its expansion into former Soviet republics, but Washington and NATO have rejected the demand as a “non-starter”.
Russia’s TASS news agency reported that Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, responding to reports that Moscow will stage fabricated attacks by Kyiv, said: “This is not the first report. Something similar was also said earlier. But nothing has come out.”
The plan for the fake attack on Russian territory or Russian-speaking people was revealed in declassified intelligence shared with Ukrainian officials and European allies in recent days. It is the latest allegation by the US that Russia is plotting to use a false pretext to go to war.
“One option is the Russian government, we think is planning to stage a sync attack by Ukrainian military or intelligence forces against Russian sovereign territory or against Russian speaking people, to therefore justify their acts,” Kirby told reporters at the Pentagon.
The US has not provided detailed information backing up the intelligence findings.
US officials said they publicised their most specific allegation yet of possible Russian propaganda to “dissuade” Moscow from following through with such plans. They said it was not clear if Russia has decided to take such a step or if it had decided whether to invade Ukraine.
“The production of this propaganda video is one of a number of options that the Russian government is developing as a fake pretext to initiate and potentially justify military aggression against Ukraine,” US State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters.
“We don’t know if Russia will necessarily use this or another option in the coming days.”
British foreign minister Liz Truss said on Twitter that the US intelligence was “clear and shocking evidence of Russia’s unprovoked aggression and underhand activity to destabilise Ukraine”.
This is not the first time the US has accused Russia of developing a false-flag operation to create a pretext for military action against Ukraine, as administration officials made similar allegations in January. Peskov, the Kremlin spokesperson, dismissed the accusations at that time, as well.
Britain recently named specific Ukrainians it accused of having ties to Russian intelligence officers plotting to overthrow Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. The US also released a map of Russian military positions and detailed how officials believe Russia will try to attack Ukraine with as many as 175,000 troops.
“We’ve seen these kinds of activity by the Russians in the past, and we believe it’s important when we see it like this, and we can, to call it out,” said Kirby. He added that Russia would also stage military equipment used by Ukraine and the West to bolster the credibility of the scheme.
Meanwhile, at NATO headquarters earlier on Thursday, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warned that Russian troop numbers in Belarus are likely to climb to 30,000, with the backing of special forces, advanced fighter jets, Iskander short-range ballistic missiles and S-400 ground-to-air missile defence systems.
“Over the last days, we have seen a significant movement of Russian military forces into Belarus. This is the biggest Russian deployment there since the Cold War,” Stoltenberg told reporters.
Stoltenberg also welcomed US President Joe Biden’s decision on Wednesday to send 2,000 US-based troops to Poland and Germany and to shift 1,000 more from Germany to Romania.
The Biden administration said the move aimed to show its commitment to NATO’s eastern flank.