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(THE CONVERSATION) In recent weeks, US officials have repeatedly warned that Russia plans to create the appearance of an attack on its own forces and broadcast these images to the world. Such a false flag operation, they say, would give Russia a pretext to invade Ukraine amidst shock and outrage.

By exposing this plan, the Biden administration sought to undermine his emotional power and prevent the Kremlin from fabricating a casus belli, or justification for war.

But false flag attacks aren’t what they used to be. With satellite photos and live video from the field shared widely and instantly on the internet – and with reporters and armchair detectives joining intelligence professionals in analyzing the information – it’s hard to get away with false flag attacks today. And with the prevalence of disinformation campaigns, manufacturing a justification for war doesn’t require the expense or risk of a false flag – much less an actual attack.

The Long History of False Flag Attacks

False flag attacks and allegations that states engage in them have a long history. The term originated to describe the carrying by pirates of friendly (and false) flags to lure merchant ships close enough to attack. It was then used as a label for any attack – real or simulated – that the instigators inflict on “friendly” forces to incriminate an adversary and create the bases for retaliation.

In the 20th century, there were several notable episodes involving false flag operations. In 1939 Nazi Germany agents broadcast anti-German messages from a German radio station near the Polish border. They also murdered several civilians whom they dressed in Polish military uniforms to create a pretext for Germany’s planned invasion of Poland.

That same year, the Soviet Union exploded shells on Soviet territory near the Finnish border and blamed Finland, which it later invaded.

The United States has also been involved in similar plots. Operation Northwoods was a proposal to kill Americans and blame Castro for the attack, thus giving the military a pretext to invade Cuba. The Kennedy administration ultimately rejected the plan.

In addition to these actual plots, there have been numerous alleged false flag attacks involving the US government. The sinking of the USS Maine in 1898 and the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964 – each of which was an essential part of a casus belli – have been claimed as possible false flag attacks, although the evidence at hand support for these claims is weak.

Global visibility, disinformation and cynicism

More recent and even less factual is the “9/11 Truth” movement, which claimed that the Bush administration staged the destruction of the Twin Towers to justify restrictions on civil liberties and lay the groundwork for the invasion of Iraq. Pundits and right-wing politicians have promoted the conspiracy theory that Democrats staged mass shootings, like the one at a high school in Parkland, Florida, in 2018, to push for gun control laws fire.

If people believe false flags happen, it’s not because they’re common. Instead, they gain plausibility from the widely held perception that politicians are unscrupulous and profit from crises.

Furthermore, governments operate in relative secrecy and use coercive tools such as intelligence, well-trained agents and weapons to implement their agenda. It’s not a big leap to imagine leaders deliberately instigating the high-impact events they later exploit for political gain, despite the logistical complexities, the sheer number of people who would need to be involved, and the moral qualms. that the rulers might have to assassinate their own. citizens.

For example, it is not controversial to note that the Bush administration used the September 11 attacks to build support for its invasion of Iraq. Yet this has led some people to conclude that since the Bush administration benefited politically from 9/11, it must therefore have caused the attacks, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

The challenge of credibility

The willingness to believe leaders are capable of such atrocities reflects a broader trend of growing distrust of governments around the world, which, incidentally, complicates matters for leaders who intend to carry out attacks under false banner. While the impact of such attacks has historically come from their ability to rally citizens around their leader, false flag attacks carried out today may not only fail to provoke outrage against the alleged aggressor, but may also turn against them by casting suspicion on leaders who oppose advantage.

Additionally, investigators using open source intelligence, such as the Bellingcat Collective of Internet Citizen Sleuths, make it harder for governments to get away with gross violations of international laws and standards.

Even as the Biden administration attempts to blunt Russia’s ability to seize the initiative, it also faces credibility issues. Reporters were rightly skeptical of State Department spokesman Ned Price’s warning about Russia’s false flag plans, especially since he did not provide evidence to support for this assertion.

Skeptics pointed to the August 2021 drone strike during the US withdrawal from Kabul, which the military initially claimed was a “righteous strike” to kill a suicide bomber, but later turned out to be a mistaken attack on a innocent man and his family. It took overwhelming and undeniable evidence from media investigations before the US government admitted its mistake.

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To the extent that the Kremlin might expect to profit from executing a false flag attack, it would be to manufacture a casus belli among Russian citizens rather than persuade the public abroad. Polls have shown that the vast majority of Russians oppose the invasion of Ukraine, but they also harbor negative attitudes towards NATO.

The spectacle of a provocation directed against Russia on state television could provide a jolt of support for an invasion, at least initially. At the same time, Russians are cynical of their own leaders and might harbor suspicion that an alleged attack was fabricated for political purposes.

False Flag Alternatives

In any case, Russia has other options to facilitate an invasion. At the start of its foray into Crimea in 2014, the Kremlin used “active measures,” including disinformation and deception, to thwart Ukrainian resistance and gain national approval. Russia and other post-Soviet states are also inclined to claim “provocation”, which sees any military action as a justified response rather than a first step.

In contrast, false flag operations are complex and perhaps overly theatrical in a way that invites unwanted scrutiny. Governments seeking to influence public opinion face far greater challenges today than in the 20th century. False flag attacks are risky, while leaders looking to fabricate a casus belli can choose from a range of more subtle and less expensive alternatives.

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