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Boris Johnson joined a chorus of Western leaders on Thursday accusing Russia of plotting to create a pretext for war with Ukraine by carrying out so-called false flag operations.

It comes after Volodymyr Zelensky, the President of Ukraine, announced that pro-Russian forces bombed a kindergarten in the separatist Donbass region of southeastern Ukraine in what he said of “great provocation”.

Video footage released by Ukrainian police showed a hole in a brick wall in a room strewn with debris and children’s toys. No children were injured, but three adults reportedly suffered concussions.

The Kremlin said Moscow was “seriously concerned” by reports of an escalation after separatists had previously accused Ukrainian government forces of opening fire on their territory four times in the past 24 hours.

However, Mr Johnson said Western allies “knew” it was a false flag operation “designed to discredit the Ukrainians, designed to create a pretext, a false provocation for Russian action”.

So what is a false flag?

A “false flag” refers to a covert operation designed to give the impression that it was carried out by another group or country – such operations are usually used to provide a pretext for war.

It also refers to activities carried out by individuals or government organizations to undermine political and military opponents. In legal terms, false banners are commonly described as “seams” and “setups.”

Where does the term come from?

The phrase was originally coined for the practice of pirate ships flying the colors of other nations to trick merchant ships into thinking they were dealing with a friendly ship, according to research from the History Channel.

While pirates usually displayed their true colors just before attacking, the wrong flag sometimes continued to fly throughout an attack, hence the term “attacking under a false flag”.

Over time, however, the term has come to apply to any covert operation intended to shift responsibility to a party other than the one carrying it out, as has happened in the past.

This photo, released by the Ukrainian Joint Forces Operation, shows a view of a kindergarten building after a suspected shelling by separatist forces in Stanytsia Luhanska, eastern Ukraine, on Thursday

(Joint Forces Operation via PA)

When has the strategy already been used?

Perhaps the most famous false flag operation was that carried out by the German Nazis during what became known as the Gleiwitz incident.

In 1939, Adolf Hitler ordered some of his officers to pose as Polish soldiers to stage an attack on a radio station in the country.

This decision led sections of the German public to support an invasion of Poland, which eventually sparked World War II.

In a now infamous speech, given by Hitler just before the invasion, he said: “His credibility doesn’t matter. The winner will not be asked if he told the truth.

During the same year, another covert operation took place, this time in the Russian village of Mainila which was bombed by an unknown group. The village was close to the border with Finland, and the attack was used as an excuse to break the Soviet Union’s non-aggression pact with the country and launch an invasion into Finland that would later become known as winter warfare.

British and Russian historians eventually concluded that the bombing of the village was a false flag operation carried out by members of the NKVD – predecessors of the KGB. And following the war between the Soviets and Finns, Finland sided with Nazi Germany in World War II.

The tactic was also used long before the 20th century, with the Swedish army considered to be one of the first to use false flags when they attacked Puumala – a Swedish outpost on the former Russian-Swedish border – in 1788.

The soldiers wore fake Russian uniforms made by a local tailor to stage the attack. The Swedish National Assembly, which had hitherto refused to accept a war against Russia, then launched an offensive in retaliation.

King Gustav III of Sweden, who unlike the assembly did not have the power to launch such an attack, was then able to start the Russian-Swedish war – which lasted two years.

What next in Ukraine?

Speaking about the Donbass attack today, James Cleverly, Britain’s Minister for European Neighborhood and the Americas, said it was a “blatant attempt” by Moscow to “manufacture” a pretext to invade the Ukraine.

“So it is clear that we are at a critical moment to prevent further escalation,” he told an emergency meeting of the US Security Council in New York, adding that the false flag was a trick. “straight out of the Kremlin playbook”.

Mr Cleverly encouraged Russian President Vladimir Putin to engage in the “diplomatic process” put in place by Western allies “over several decades” and to resolve his tensions with Ukraine “through peaceful means”.