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False flags are usually just that — false

Successful covert attacks by a country on its own people are extremely hard to pull off, and thus extremely rare.

By Lawrence Freedman

“Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.”  — Sir Walter Scott (1808)

On 25 April Sam Freedman wrote on our Substack, Comment is Freed, about the idea of the “dead cat”, a supposedly clever ruse by which a government can divert attention from something that is truly bad and unpopular by deliberately acting outrageously but actually far less consequentially (the equivalent of throwing a dead cat on a dinner table). Sam’s complaint was that the point of a dead cat is deliberate misdirection yet the term is used even when the supposedly diversionary act was not put on just for show and did meet a government objective. Judging the effect of one action on another by invoking dead cats gives a government far too much credit for co-ordinated action and exaggerates the ease with which it can manipulate the news cycle.

An equivalent though more specific phrase in contemporary strategy is “false flag”, which is also about deception and manipulation of the news cycle. It normally takes the form of an allegation that a government or group has manufactured an atrocity, even to the point of murdering its own people, so that blame falls on an opponent.

Originally a false flag referred to pirates raising a friendly flag to lull a vulnerable ship into a false sense of security, so they could get close enough to attack them. Eventually it became an accepted practice in naval warfare. This was considered a legitimate ruse de guerre but only if the true flag was raised before the actual attack. At this point the identity of the perpetrator would be self-evident.

So the initial idea of a false flag was a simple deception that was not expected to last, and had nothing to do with permanently hiding the identity of the attacker. The trick was played not on the innocent party whose flag was used but on the intended victim. Gradually it came to refer to other sorts of ruses when a false identity was used to gain the confidence of the target, for example by spies during the Cold War. The next step, which takes us to where we are now, was to use the false identity not as a convenient ploy but as a deliberate attempt to frame another party for a crime. From there it was a short step to manufacturing a crime solely to frame this other party.

This is the sort of scenario to fire the imagination of any conspiracy theorist. The more ambitious the deception the greater number of people who must be involved to pull it off. An example is the claim that the World Trade Center was destroyed by a controlled demolition on 11 September 2001 rather than being hit by hijacked aircraft. Another example is the allegation that the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting in which 20 children and six school employees were killed in Newtown, Connecticut, was fabricated by gun-control advocates and mainstream media. (Alex Jones, one of the main promoters of this claim, was successfully sued for defamation by the families of victims.)

One of the most contested claims of recent times was that rebels went to an enormous effort in the Syrian city of Douma to stage a chemical weapons attack by the Syrian government on 7 April 2018. This claim has persisted despite the final report of the fact-finding mission of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) confirming that chlorine gas probably was used in the attack. Bellingcat, which plays an important role in investigating all such claims, explains just what would be necessary for this event to have been a false flag:

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“A ‘false flag’ attack would have been extremely complex to plan and execute, relying either on the murder of multiple people (which not a single witness mentioned), or the discovery of an unprecedented number of people who had died from ‘dust inhalation’. These bodies would then have had to be transported to the building and unloaded. Unloading these bodies would have had to have happened without anyone taking any pictures or video. …  This plan would have had to be executed during a period of incredibly heavy shelling, as the frontlines of this tiny rebel-held pocket collapsed. 

“The fakery, from the manufacturing of the cylinders to the chemical samples, would have had to be carried out to an incredibly high standard, indeed high enough that it could fool not only the fact-finding mission, but also multiple witnesses at the site of the attack. The craters and cylinder would have had to be perfectly consistent with two cylinders falling from height and impacting the roofs in order to fool the three independent analyses carried out by the fact-finding mission.”

So for a false flag attack to be organised in a way that might fool seasoned investigators and journalists is no simple matter, especially when it would not be out of character for the state supposedly being falsely accused to have committed such an atrocity.

False flags in Ukraine

We have heard a lot about false flags recently because it is now Moscow’s automatic response when accused of war crimes to insist that these have been perpetrated by Ukrainian agents on fellow Ukrainians to discredit Russia. We saw this with the first attacks on apartment buildings in Mariupol, before these became too regular to attribute to anything other than Russian bombs, missiles and shells. As an example of how a particular incident can be used, consider the pro-Russian blogger Max Blumenthal, who was also active in promoting the idea that Syrian rebels had fabricated the chemical weapons attack in Douma. He claimed that a theatre where residents were hiding from Russian shelling in Mariupol was destroyed not by Russia but by members of the Ukrainian Azov brigade seeking to trigger Nato intervention. This assertion was effectively debunked by the writer and political scientist Neil Abrams.

These claims about false flags normally depend on some inconsistency in the evidence allegedly showing how — despite appearances — Russian forces have been set up for unjust accusations. A blatant example of this approach came after the 8 April attack on the Kramatorsk train station, which killed 57 people, including eight children, and injured 300 more, all seeking to get away from the fighting in the new front line in the Donbas. Even as the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, was condemning the attack, Russian state media was starting to push the idea that Ukraine was responsible. This included a fake BBC News story that placed the blame on Ukraine. At the heart of this effort was the suggestion that the attack involved a Tochka missile identical to those used by a Ukrainian missile brigade but not by Russians. In fact there were a number of accounts of the Russians firing this sort of missile. The German journalist Julian Röpcke noted that the Russians had claimed a successful strike against the station until they realised how many innocent civilians they had killed.

The same technique — of trying to identify a vital inconsistency in the evidence — was employed by the Russian Ministry of Defence when it argued that a video of a car driving through Bucha to show the terrible things that had happened there had two crisis actors playing the role of dead Ukrainians: one moved their arm while another was seen in the car’s mirror sitting up. It was not hard to show that the first effect was caused by drop of water or dirt on the car’s windshield and the second by the distorting effect of the passenger side mirror.

Leaving aside the evident fakery there is also an obvious question about the credibility of the underlying claim. Why would the Ukrainians go to such lengths to frame the Russians, even to the point of murdering their own people? The proposition that the purpose is to make the Russians look bad would look more credible if the Russians had not done so much already to cast themselves in the worst possible light and had not ramped up their anti-Ukrainian rhetoric so that attacks of this sort might even appear to be justified.

One explanation is that this is just a routine response to any event that supports an anti-Russian narrative. There is a pattern of behaviour that now has a long history. In July 2014 the Malaysian airliner MH17 was shot down over separatist-held territory in the Donbas. There were initial boasts from separatists that they had taken down a Ukrainian transport aircraft until they realised the enormity of what they had done, at which point the lying began, with attempts to show that it was not a Russian Buk air defence missile but a Ukrainian aircraft that was responsible. Then there were the desperate attempts to demonstrate that the Salisbury poisonings in 2018 had nothing to do with the Russian FSB. The effect of these claims has always been to aggravate and prolong the outrage compared with remaining silent or admitting a mistake. (The Dutch authorities are now trying six individuals in absentia for their role authorising and organising the MH17 attack.)

Once it becomes impossible to accept that you have ever done anything wrong then there is an obligation to insist on the falsity of any accusation. This does not necessarily mean that there is any confidence that impartial observers might be at all taken in. It is simply a way of avoiding political responsibility and acting with impunity. Lies might be exposed but nothing much can be done about them.

Russian false flags

One explanation for the frequent use of the false flag narrative in a defensive mode is that Russia regularly tries to set up false flags of its own when about to launch offensives. It is important to Vladimir Putin to demonstrate that military action is only taken in response to a substantial provocation. If the intended enemy fails to provide one then Russia must do it for them.

The pattern was set by an incident that is now widely considered to have been a true “false flag”. There is compelling evidence (although still contested) that bombings of residential buildings in Russia in September 1999, in which over 300 people died, attributed to Chechen terrorists, were in fact the responsibility of the FSB. These outrages were used by the new Russian prime minister and recent head of the FSB — Putin — to immediately launch the Second Chechen War. A key piece of evidence was that FSB operatives were implicated in one of the planned bombing attempts which was foiled. If this was a successful false flag (and to some extent even if terrorists were responsible) Putin will have seen the value of such an outrage at creating a war mood and then helping him win the 2000 presidential election. The Chechen War may also have persuaded him of the strategic value of flattening cities.

In the script being followed in the run up to the 24 February invasion of Ukraine a false flag played a similar role. The aim was to demonstrate that the separatists in the Donbas were under attack. A mass evacuation was ordered to enable residents to escape the anticipated onslaught. After Putin announced on 21 February that he would recognise the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics as independent entities, treaties of “friendship and mutual assistance” were signed with both. All that was needed to activate them was a suitable provocation, which came with Russian media reports of a bomb hitting two vehicles and causing three deaths. This was soon shown to have involved the staged use of cadavers and faked damage.

This explains the nervousness surrounding comparable incidents as potential indicators of new offensives. On 11 March Ukraine’s military accused Russian aircraft of firing at Belarusian border villages from Ukrainian air space to prod Belarusian forces into joining the war. This came as the Belarusian president, Alexander Lukashenko, was meeting Putin in Moscow. In the event discretion won over valour and Belarusian forces stayed out of the fight.

More recently there has been concern about how Moldova might be drawn into the war. This is another former Soviet Republic with its own breakaway Russian-speaking region — Transnistria, adjacent to southern Ukraine. It is best known as a base for criminals but it does have a garrison of 1,500 local and Russian troops. 

Moldova took the unforgiveable step (from Moscow’s perspective) of voting in a pro-Western government to replace a pro-Russian one, but it barely has an army and depends on Russia for its energy. In late April an explosion damaged the Russian-controlled state security ministry and then two more explosions wrecked antennas used to transmit Russian radio. These incidents followed a Russian general claiming on 23 April that an aim of Russia’s offensive in Ukraine was to link up with Transnistria. Since then it has become clear that the Russian offensive has faltered. If Russian forces wished to meet up with the local garrison they would have to travel 200km and work out what to do about the heavily defended port city Odesa en route. Alternatively, if the Transnistria forces wished to mount their own offensive it is hard to believe they would last long. It therefore seems most likely that the explosions in Transnistria were part of a script for a military development that did not take place because the conditions were not in place.

A series of explosions — at least a dozen — taking place inside Russia has also became the subject of some speculation. On 1 April low-altitude helicopters were reported to have attacked a fuel depot close to Ukrainian border. On 25 April oil tanks in Bryansk were set ablaze. There were explosions at Russian military and industrial sites in Kursk and Voronezh on 27 April. (A Ukrainian drone also crashed near Kursk.) At first some wondered whether these might be false flags, perhaps to justify even more aggressive action against Ukraine. Other possibilities suggested were sabotage or just poorly maintained facilities. The consensus now is that Ukrainian forces were largely responsible. The attacks were designed to impede logistical support rather than cause casualties. They were also a great embarrassment for Russia because they suggested that their homeland defences were not up to the task, and so Moscow has played them down rather than broadcast them — which is how it would have treated a provocation staged for a purpose.

Russian attempts to blame Ukrainians both for attacks on themselves and for provocative attacks against those supporting Russia are best understood now as barely serious but essentially performative. This is the only script Moscow knows how to follow. This leaves little scope for nuance or subtlety when putting together these stories. In the past they provided a form of political cover because Putin felt able to act with impunity. Now they do not work so well. As I argued in a previous piece, habitual liars face problems when reality catches up with them.

Because of the performative nature of attempts to use false flags to cover up Russian atrocities, and also of assertions of Ukrainian atrocities to make the case for new acts of Russian aggression, there is rarely much of a challenge when it comes to establishing whether they have any basis in fact. They are the equivalent of a bureaucratic box-ticking exercise, except in this case in fakery. As credibility outside Russia is low anyway those responsible for these fabrications do not appear to think that they warrant great effort.

It is actually quite rare for states to harm their own people to cast their enemies in a bad light. Not only are such attacks patently unethical they are also extremely hard to make convincing. One of the obvious problems with such subterfuges is that more credibility comes with more death and destruction. Minor damage at an administrative building, let alone a photoshopped couple of victims, does not really cut it. But of course a deliberate effort to harm one’s own people in this way would be an immense scandal should it be confirmed and lead to popular anger. To reduce the risk of disclosure and scandal, as few people as possible would need to be involved in the act and subsequent cover-up.

Then there will be the question of whether the act can lead to the desired political consequences. What happens if instead of popular fury the reaction is sullen and defeatist, on the grounds that the enemy is too powerful? (Which is after all probably the reaction the Russians were hoping to generate with their bombardment of Mariupol.) Will people believe that party being framed really is capable of such an atrocity? If that is the case then presumably it is because they have already committed comparable acts on their own volition, in which case why go to the bother of fabricating a further atrocity on their behalf? If it is not the case, and seems wholly out of character, is the event not likely to trigger careful investigations into who really was responsible?

Of course some deceptions are successful and not all fakery is exposed. But a successful false flag operation remains an extreme case. Perhaps because Putin apparently pulled off one successfully in September 1999 — one which achieved credibility because of the high death toll — he developed a belief in their efficacy that has never left him.

Lawrence Freedman is a regular “New Statesman” contributor. This article originally appeared on his Substack “Comment is Freed”.

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