What is a false flag? The US says Russia may use it to invade Ukraine

The US has warned repeatedly over the past weeks that the Kremlin will attempt to stage an attack inside Ukraine to create a pretext for an invasion of the country.

Conflict in Georgia 2008

Russian operatives would likely attack Russian land or ethnic Russians in Ukraine, film and publicise the aftermath, as if it had been a Ukrainian attack on Russians, thus giving the Kremlin a justification for an invasion, the Pentagon said.

“As part of this fake attack,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said on February 4, “we believe that Russia would produce a very graphic propaganda video which would include corpses and actors that would be depicting mourners and images of destroyed locations.”

This sort of tactic, known as a “false-flag” attack, is an event or action committed by one group to create a false-perception about another side, usually in a conflict.

The full story here.

‘Signs the strategy is working’: US/UK intel leaks on Russia’s Ukraine plans

For years, the world has been treated to a view of the Kremlin’s information war.

Now, we see the first nascent Western democratic version. 

Call it tactical information war, Washington and London style.

This CNN article discusses the Biden administration’s strategy of declassifying intelligence on Russia’s moves around Ukraine and releasing it in an effort to frustrate the Kremlin, communicate with the public, and potentially help shape the outcome of the event. According to the article: the Biden administration “believes Russian President Vladimir Putin has been caught off guard by some of the releases.”

The strategy shows an evolution since 2014, when the West watched seemingly helplessly as Putin deployed his unmarked troops to Crimea, which they soon took over.

Since then, the modus operandi of Russia has been to use anonymous or proxy voices to sow doubt: about troop movements, as well as about political reality.

Interestingly, the US model relies not on doubt but trust. Trust that the US isn’t cooking the intelligence. Also the public’s trust that on this matter the US government is accurate.

In mid-January, the US intelligence officials said Russia had already prepositioned operatives to conduct a false-flag attack as a pretext for invasion in eastern Ukraine. In late January, the British foreign office disclosed what they said was a plot to install pro-Russian leadership in Kyiv. The White House repeated its claim of a “false-flag” operation  – with details of “graphic propaganda video” in early February. 

There have been other benefits. Apparently Russian officials have been “grumbling about the exposure of their plans” forcing Moscow to fear it has a mole among its staff.

One western intel figure told CNN: “Sometimes, if you put enough doubt in the system, they may actually remove some competent people who they suspect of being spies who, in fact, aren’t spies at all.”

This approach is a cousin to the broader US insistence that accurate news reporting will do the work of supporting democracy’s values in a contest with authoritarian nations. But rather than a persistent, open-ended, strategic approach, these “fact-bombs” around a possible Ukraine “further”-invasion are tactical, released as a series of slashes and parries in a fencing battle with the Kremlin’s thrusts and counter-thrusts. 

US officials say there are signs the strategy is working, per CNN. The question is: will the strategy be enough to dissuade Russia from invading?

I suppose we’ll have that answer soon enough.

Summit for Democracy, a contest against chaos…

…and information disorder, untruths, trolling, disinformation. The virtual event is an effort to resurrect the global language of democracy after its rough start in the new century.

One of the traits of this era is escalating complexity of systems. No form of government knows that better than liberal democracy — just look at the news and social media feeds in a democratic country on any given day.

So it’s crucial in this time that there is a way to conceive of democracy simply, and as a whole.

To discuss democracy as the summit does reminds the public of the organising power of the political system. Not just institutionally, or politically but morally and mentally in a time of information overload.

This podcast discusses the challenges for democracy in the world as we find it in 2021.

Sources:

We are partners in our own demise: ex-president of Estonia Toomas Hendrik Ilves

Too much information, too much contradiction and too much confusion. In this era, how do we even think about where democracy stands in the world? The former president of Estonia Toomas Hendrik Ilves, in a speech in honour of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny, offers a clear-eyed assessment of the state of democracy today in competition with Russia, China  and other autocracies. He notes how there once was moral clarity about where the West stood in relations to these countries. Not so now: one of the fallouts of 30 years of globalisation, the internet and free trade is this great blurring, which sees Western economies, governments and businesses accept the ill-gotten wealth of strongmen. Ilves poses the question: are we “un-indicted co-conspirators” in our demise? He asks in terms of money. But I think a similar case can be made in terms of information and ideas.

You can hear Ilves’ full speech here – starting at 9.33

Text of the speech here.

Media analyst Vasily Gatov’s analysis of the Kremlin’s information war (2015)