Could US Intel of Russia's 'False Flag' in Ukraine Be Part of Putin's Plan?

The U.S. intelligence community has been buzzing lately with talk of a potential Kremlin plot to stage attacks against Russian-speaking Ukrainians, part of an elaborate plan to fabricate a pretext for military operations against its neighbor.

But current and former insiders tell Newsweek that signs of a so-called "false flag" operation may have been intentionally fed by Moscow to discredit and distract Washington.

One former senior counterintelligence officer who worked against Russian intelligence told Newsweek that it could not be ruled out that U.S. officials were the target of a deliberate ruse by Russia.

"I have zero doubt that we have intel sources that are reliable who told us this," the former officer said. "Now, there's some possibility that our intel sources were fed deceptive information in order to go down this crazy path."

The former senior counterintelligence officer laid out two potential scenarios, neither of which may ever fully come to light, given the shadowy world of spy games between two Cold War-era rivals.

"If it's a deception within a deception, we're publicly releasing this and it's a little embarrassing," the former officer said. "The Russians can go, 'Hey, big victory, they think it's real and they're releasing the intel,' but it doesn't matter because it's never going to happen anyway."

"And if it actually was going to happen," the former officer said, "then it really can't happen without us saying, 'I told you so.' So you kind of will never know."

The result, according to this former senior counterintelligence officer, is that "we're in a situation where we have to wonder if we're being lied to about the lie." And if that's the case, the goal may be to throw the U.S. off from the Kremlin's true calculus.

"Is this whole thing made up to begin with to confuse us about what the Russians intend to do by the Russians lying about some big event that's coming in to signal that they want to invade?" the former officer asked rhetorically. "And a good reason to do that is the Russians leaked to us intentionally that they want to have some big event that's going to be when it's time to invade, and you could do that purely to prep the battlefield."

"It could be that the Russians are undecided whether or not they want to invade, that in order to better protect their invasion plans," the former counterintelligence officer said, "they want the U.S. to believe that they're going to do this sort of thing first and then that way the U.S. is looking for it and then the Russians invade anyway, because that was all bullshit."

Another current U.S. official with experience on the matter, specifically in the Baltic region located on NATO's western flank with Russia, also warned Washington may have fallen for another one of Moscow's tricks.

"I absolutely believe that the Russians are using every trick in the book to sway Western intel assessments to achieve their goal," the U.S. official said. "What's comically unfortunate is that they have employed disinformation and saber-rattling for centuries. Yet we never learn."

Russia, President, Vladimir, Putin, Beijing, Olympics, 2022
Russian President Vladimir Putin looks on during the opening ceremony of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games, at the National Stadium, known as the Bird's Nest, in Beijing, on February 4. While still sending troops and equipment to near Ukraine's border, Russia has vowed to abide by a non-binding Olympic Truce that runs through March 20. WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images

Allegations that Russia might fabricate a justification for attacks in Ukraine have been made by President Joe Biden's administration since last month, but more information on existing U.S. intelligence assessments emerged Thursday when State Department Ned Price laid out one potential scenario.

"One possible option the Russians are considering, and which we made public today, involves the production of a propaganda video," Price told reporters, "a video with graphic scenes of false explosions — depicting corpses, crisis actors pretending to be mourners, and images of destroyed locations or military equipment — entirely fabricated by Russian intelligence."

Moscow has balked at Washington's claims, for which the Biden administration has not offered evidence, but another individual with an extensive history of dealing with Moscow described what such a plot could look like.

"The Russians are looking for anything that even bears a passing resemblance to a provocation for justification for their invasion," one former intelligence analyst with knowledge of Russian tactics, techniques and procedures told Newsweek. "If the Ukrainians don't give them one, they'll invent one themselves."

"They've done it before, they'll do it again," the former intelligence analyst added. "Could be a 'massacre,' could be a 'drone strike,' could be an 'artillery shell,' whatever. You've already seen Belarusian and Russian claims of Ukrainian drones flying over their borders in the last months."

And the former intelligence analyst added another dimension, one focused on Russian-speaking Ukrainians or those holding Russian passports in Ukraine.

"So they gin up attacks against Russian-speakers or passport holders that look like they're conducted by Ukrainian 'extremists' or the Ukrainian military itself, then say, 'Oh, we don't want to invade, but we must to protect Russians and restore order,'" the former intelligence analyst said.

That this scenario was being considered by the administration was confirmed to Newsweek by the U.S. official on the condition of anonymity.

The Department of Defense outlined a similar scenario in its own press conference on Thursday.

"One option is the Russian government, we think, is planning to stage a fake attack by Ukrainian military or intelligence forces against Russian sovereign territory or against Russian-speaking people to therefore justify their action," Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said.

Douglas Wise, who served in the CIA as a member of the Senior Intelligence Service and was deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, spoke to why such a seemingly unbelievable plot may actually make sense to those in the U.S. intelligence community who know Russia well.

"It would be very rational for domestic political reasons and for global political reasons that the Russians would need a credible pretext to violate Ukrainian sovereignty," Wise told Newsweek.

"And a very good pretext would be a mass atrocity which the Russian army is going in to prevent," he added, "or the Russian army is going in to avenge and to prevent additional atrocities."

Ethnic Russians make up the country's largest minority, and Russian is Ukraine's second language. Russian-speakers constitute a majority in the Donbas region, where the Moscow-aligned breakaway republics of Donetsk and Lugansk declared independence without international recognition amid the rise to power of a pro-West government in Kyiv in 2014.

Around the same time, Russia annexed Crimea in an internationally disputed referendum, which Moscow argued it conducted out of concern for the well being of the Russophone majority in the strategically located Black Sea peninsula.

The war between Ukrainian troops and separatists in the Donbas region continues to this day, with up to 14,000 killed throughout the eight-year conflict. Kyiv and its international supporters, including Washington, have alleged that the rebels are directly backed by Moscow, which has denied the claims.

But since last year Russian troops have amassed near Ukraine's eastern border, and the buildup has accelerated in recent months. Moscow has denied any plans to take military action, but at the same time has demanded new treaties to address the Kremlin's security concerns over an expanding NATO alliance, which Russian President Vladimir Putin has said Ukraine must not be allowed to join.

Diplomacy aimed at deescalating the situation between Russia on one side and the U.S. and its NATO allies has so far shown little sign of progress, and Washington has continued to warn that Moscow may stage a provocation in the meantime. The lack of proof offered by the U.S. has raised tensions with journalists as well.

During a heated exchange with a reporter at a State Department press conference on Thursday, Price said that the claims themselves constituted the extent of the "intelligence information that we have declassified." Pressed for further evidence, Price said that "when we make intelligence information public, we do so in a way that protects sensitive sources and methods."

Donetsk, People's, Republic, capital, Donbas
A pedestrian walks past a huge state emblem of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine on January 19. The separatist entity is one of two Moscow-aligned breakaway alongside Luhansk in the primarily Russian-speaking Donbas region that proclaimed their independence without international recognition in spring 2014, sparking a war that continues to this day. ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images

As for Russia itself, Moscow's embassy in Washington quickly dismissed the conspiracy allegations.

Ambassador Anatoly Antonov responded directly to Newsweek's question on the matter.

"This lie is part of the information war against Russia," Antonov said. "Washington has been stirring up the whole world for several months with statements that Ukraine is about to become a victim of the 'Russian aggression.'"

"However, things did not work out as there is no attack," he added. "Apparently, that was the reason why 'leaks' of some intelligence data with the blasphemous and unfounded accusations you mentioned were used to gain some kind of credibility."

And like the reporter who challenged Price's claims at Thursday's State Department press conference, Antonov made reference to the faulty intelligence and accompanying narratives that fueled the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq on the stated basis of weapons of mass destructions that were ultimately proved to be nonexistent.

"There is a feeling that U.S. PR specialists, in an effort to compromise Russia, act on the principle of 'throw as much dirt as possible, maybe something will stick,'" he said. "We know the value of such 'compromising material' of the American special services, who have thoroughly disgraced themselves by handing the U.S. Secretary of State a vial with white powder to justify the invasion of Iraq."

Antonov then made a direct appeal to Newsweek's audience.

"With all responsibility, I want to assure the readers of Newsweek that Russia is not going to attack anyone," Antonov said. "We need neighborly relations with the fraternal Ukrainian people."

But he said Moscow remained "concerned" about Washington's position on Ukraine, where a series of back-to-back deals known as the Minsk Agreements between Kyiv and separatists remain in place despite regular dueling accusations of violations. Both Biden and his Russian counterpart, along with other leaders involved in the dispute, have publicly expressed support for the accords.

Antonov said the "common task" of both the Biden and Putin administrations "is to force Kiev to fulfill its obligations, sit down at the negotiating table with representatives of the Donetsk People's Republic and the Luhansk People's Republic and peacefully agree on everything."

"We consider the current American actions to pump weapons into Ukraine to be erroneous and extremely dangerous," Antonov said. "Thus, the United States indulges the nationalist group in Kiev, which is doing everything to turn the Russian-speaking population into a persecuted minority in an ethnocratic state. We urge the United States not to act out scenes for the gullible."

"Essays on the topic of Russian operations 'under a false flag' are, apparently, aimed at constructing an alibi for possible operations of the Armed Forces of Ukraine against Donbass," he added.

Ukraine, soldier, aims, rifle, frontier, Donbas
A Ukrainian frontier soldier aims his rifle from a dugout along the border with Russia, around 49 kilometers from the second largest Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, on February 7. Ukrainian officials have sought to downplay U.S. warnings of a Russian military operation that could erupt at any moment, while still remaining prepared for potential conflict. SERGEY BOBOK/AFP/Getty Images