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Ukraine Sees False Flags in Putin’s Game Plan

Ukraine Sees False Flags in Putin’s Game Plan

Thursday, 24 February, 2022 - 05:15

Russian President Vladimir Putin can escalate his offensive against Ukraine whenever he wants. Even then, however, he’ll almost certainly prefer a pretext for the move.

Is he already writing that script? The other day a car blew up in Donetsk, one of the separatist regions in eastern Ukraine that Putin just “recognized” as an independent People’s Republic. In Luhansk, the other breakaway territory, a gas pipeline went up in flames. There’s been more artillery fire near the lines of contact.

Russia’s state-controlled media were quick to blame these incidents on the Ukrainian side. But Kyiv insisted they were so-called false-flag operations instigated or executed by Moscow. It’s in the nature of such deception that the truth is impossible to verify, at least in the short term. But if US and UK intelligence agencies are right, the false-flag attacks are about to get a lot more serious.

Remember that Putin keeps peddling the fiction that Ukraine is waging genocide against ethnic Russians in the country’s east. To justify a full-bore invasion, Moscow might, therefore, be tempted — as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has warned the United Nations Security Council — to stage atrocities: a terrorist attack inside Russia; the “discovery” of a mass grave of ethnic Russians; or a drone or chemical attack against civilians. In each case, Russia would blame Kyiv and again accuse it of ethnic cleansing.

The fact that such ruses by Moscow are even imaginable should make any Putin sympathizer think again. Can hybrid warfare get any more evil? And yet, such deviousness — in varying degrees of perfidy — has been used throughout history. As they say, truth is the first casualty of war. And false-flag operations are often the lies that create the excuse for war.

Take what’s arguably the most notorious false-flag operation ever, the so-called Gleiwitz incident, which has harrowing echoes today. It took place on Aug. 31, 1939, a time when parts of Europe resembled the Russian-Ukrainian border regions today.

Adolf Hitler had massed tanks and troops along the border with Poland, which he accused of ethnically cleansing Germans, who therefore needed the protection of the Third Reich. To feed that narrative, the Nazis staged several fake incidents, culminating in a well-rehearsed attack on a German radio tower in the town of Gleiwitz, near the Polish border but inside the Reich.

Seven SS officers dressed up in Polish uniforms and seized the tower, then broadcast in Polish and German that it was now under Polish control. To make the ruse look plausible, they murdered a German man and left him dressed in a Polish uniform as though he had died during the attack, along with the mangled corpses of several concentration-camp inmates dressed as German soldiers, as though they had tried to defend the tower.

“This night for the first time Polish regular soldiers fired on our territory,” Hitler said the next day. “Since 5:45 a.m. we have been returning the fire, and from now on bombs will be met by bombs.” And so began World War II.

Many other powers, both autocracies and democracies, have raised false flags. Later in 1939, Soviet operatives pretending to be Finns shelled a Russian village, thus providing the excuse for the Soviet Union’s invasion of Finland. When the US and the UK wanted regime change in Iran in the 1950s, they bombed mosques and blamed the attacks on communists tied to the government, which was soon ousted. In 1964, the US used a false-flag torpedo attack in the Gulf of Tonkin to wangle Congress into passing a resolution to deploy ground troops in Vietnam.

The context was different in each case. But the psychology of false-flag tactics in general is intriguing. Warlords like Genghis Khan, as far as I know, would have had no use for them. They conquered simply because they could, and didn’t need to invent excuses.

Nowadays, even superpowers and tyrants clearly put on some fig leaf of legitimacy before they invade, pillage or usurp. Whether that leaf covers much, and for how long, seems less relevant. I have no idea how many Germans and other Europeans believed Hitler’s version of the Gleiwitz incident at the time, and for how long. But Hitler didn’t seem worried about that. Credibility doesn’t matter, he had told his generals a week earlier, because victors aren’t asked whether they told the truth.

In effect, false-flag attacks are therefore just one more tool in the bigger kit of disinformation and propaganda. But in this case, the motivation is less to convince the other side than to rally your own side with a rhetorical weapon to complement the physical ones.

If anything, modern social media may have made false-flag operations more appealing as an instrument. Well-oiled disinformation machines can spread lies faster and wider than ever before. Putin, who spent his formative years in the KGB, understands all this better than most leaders. Above all, he knows that if a diverse and amorphous adversary like “the West” cannot establish or agree on what is true, it probably can’t stay united for long.

The best we can do is to prepare for the lies to come, and to unmask them with facts when they arrive. The stakes are high. Imagine our world if most people believed it’s Ukraine that’s bullying Russia — or that at Gleiwitz on August 31, 1939, it was the Poles attacking the Germans.


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