Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

False-Flag Invasions Are a Russian Specialty

| Feb. 04, 2022

Ukraine wouldn't be the first place that Russia's military started a war by faking an attack.

Last month, as tensions between Ukraine and Russia escalated, the U.S. Department of Defense publicly warned that Russian operatives were planning a false-flag operation—a deception operation designed to give them an excuse to intervene in Ukraine. This was followed by an unusual public announcement by Britain's foreign office alleging that the Kremlin was plotting to install a pliant, pro-Russian, leader in Ukraine. Then, this week, U.S. intelligence officials have published details of a Russian plot to fabricate a graphic video as pretext for an attack on Ukraine. The video apparently would include staged explosions, with corpses, actors, and mourners, to justify Russian intervention.

Amid the saber-rattling and the fog of war descending, it is difficult for all observers, including governments, to understand what will happen next in Ukraine. Rumors are swirling, and tensions are escalating day by day, even hour by hour.

The recent claims by Western governments, however, about Russian false-flag operations and its intention to install a pliant leader in Ukraine, are entirely unsurprising when seen from a historical perspective. Such moves were deliberate strategies on the part of the Kremlin during the Cold War, which Russia's leader, Vladimir Putin—an old cold warrior and former KGB officer—knows only too well. Understanding this history informs what we are seeing unfolding right now.

In 1968, the Kremlin used its intelligence service, the KGB, to create false-flag incidents to justify Soviet military intervention in Czechoslovakia, where in January its new 46-year-old leader, Alexander Dubcek, was attempting to open the country to social democratic reform and create "socialism with a human face." Spontaneous celebrations of popular support for reforms reached a climax during a May Day procession in Prague that year, where protesters carried placards reading "Long live the USSR—but at its own expense." In the Kremlin, Dubcek's reforms appeared to threaten the fabric of the entire Soviet bloc. Previously highly classified KGB archives reveal that the Soviet leader at the time, Leonid Brezhnev, and his KGB chairman, Yuri Andropov, used deep-cover KGB "illegals" to fabricate incidents in order to justify sending in the Red Army, crush Dubcek's reforms, and install a Kremlin-loyal leader in Czechoslovakia.

As part of what was dubbed Operation Progress, revealed by material smuggled from KGB archives to the West, Andropov authorized the deployment of 20 KGB illegals. These were intelligence officers not under Soviet diplomatic (legal) cover but operating without cover (hence "illegal"), out in the cold. Andropov's deployment of these illegals to Czechoslovakia was more than any had been deployed to any Western country in so short a time. They posed as Western journalists, businessmen, and students, in Czechoslovakia and surrounding countries. Their mission, controlled by KGB Directorate S, its illegals' department, was to spy on Westerners there and undertake covert action ("active measures," in the Kremlin's vernacular) to justify Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia. They planted stories to smear Czech reformist politicians, tried to get journalists to publish provocative attacks on the Soviet Union, earmarked those who should be deported to the Soviet Union, and fabricated evidence of a Western plot to support Czech reformists. In Moscow's narrative, pro-democratic reformers in Prague were being assisted by the CIA and the hidden hand of other Western intelligence services. They were trying to subvert the Soviet Union. Moscow thus had to stand strong and shore up its security in the face of Western meddling. Sound familiar?...

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walton, Calder.“False-Flag Invasions Are a Russian Specialty.” Foreign Policy, February 4, 2022.