US says Russia plans to fabricate pretext for invasion

WASHINGTON — The United States has acquired intelligence about a Russian plan to fabricate a pretext for an invasion of Ukraine using fake video that allegedly builds on recent disinformation campaigns, senior administration officials say and others knowledgeable about the material.

The plan – which the US hopes to spoil by making it public – is to stage and film a fabricated attack by the Ukrainian military either on Russian territory or against Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine.

Russia, the officials said, intended to use the video to accuse Ukraine of genocide against Russian speakers. He would then use the outrage over the video to justify an attack or ask separatist leaders in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine to invite Russian intervention.

Officials won’t release any direct evidence of the Russian plan or say how they learned about it, saying it would compromise their sources and methods. But a recent Russian disinformation campaign focused on false accusations of genocide and efforts by the Russian parliament to recognize dissident governments in Ukraine have given credence to the intelligence.

If carried out, the Russian operation would be an extension of a propaganda theme that US intelligence officials and outside experts said Moscow had pushed on social media, on conspiracy sites and with the media controlled by the state since November.

The video was intended to be elaborate, officials said, with plans for graphic footage of the staged, corpse-strewn aftermath of an explosion and footage of destroyed locations. They said the video was also to include fake Ukrainian military equipment, Turkish-made drones and actors playing Russian-speaking mourners.

US officials would not say specifically who in Russia was planning the operation, but a senior official said the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence arm, was deeply involved in the effort.

Ned Price, the State Department spokesman, discussed some details of the planned video during his daily press conference on Thursday, although he said the conspiracy evidence remained classified to protect US sources.

“The production of this propaganda video is one of many options the Russian government is developing as a false pretext to launch and potentially justify military aggression against Ukraine,” Price said.

A British official said his government had done its own analysis of the intelligence and was convinced that Russia was planning to devise a pretext to blame Ukraine for an attack. Another British official, Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, said the intelligence was “clear and shocking evidence of Russia’s unprovoked aggression and underhanded activity to destabilize Ukraine”.

“The UK and our allies will continue to expose Russian subterfuge and propaganda and call it what it is,” Ms Truss said in a statement.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry S. Peskov dismissed the US allegations in comments carried by Russian news agencies. “This is not the first report of its kind,” he said. “Similar things have been claimed before. But nothing ever came of them.

While it was unclear whether senior Russian officials had approved the operation, it was well advanced in planning and the United States was confident it was being seriously considered, officials said. Russian officials had found corpses to use in the video, discussed actors to play the mourners, and plotted to surface Ukrainian or NATO-supplied military equipment.

While the plan seemed far-fetched, US officials said they believed it could have worked to provide a spark for a Russian military operation – an outcome they hoped to make less likely by publicly exposing the effort.

The intelligence highlights have been declassified, hoping both to derail the plot and convince allies of the seriousness of Russian planning. Officials interviewed for this article requested anonymity to discuss declassified but sensitive information before it was made public.

Avril D. Haines, the director of national intelligence, and other senior administration officials briefed members of Congress on the material Thursday. Details of the information have also been shared with allies, as the United States and Britain push a kind of intelligence diplomacy.

In recent weeks, Washington and London have outlined elements of Moscow’s war planning, highlighting planned troop buildups, exposing a false flag sabotage plot and revealing Russian plans to install a friendly government in Kiev.

Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat of Virginia and chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said recent work by the United States and Britain to publicize Russian conspiracies was an important development. Making the information public, he said, warns Ukrainians and will help the world make different and more accurate judgments about Russian actions.

“Too often we come in after the fact and say it was a false flag operation,” Mr Warner said. “By warning, it diminishes Russia’s credibility and its ability to use something like this as an excuse.”

The US-British strategy aims to persuade the allies that Russia is not pretending and has real war plans that it could implement. The releases also aim to force Russia to abandon and reshuffle its plans, further delaying any invasion plans.

The longer the international community can delay a decision by President Vladimir V. Putin on whether to approve a military operation against Ukraine, the more likely he is to reconsider his plans, diplomats say.

Some officials in the United States and Britain believe Mr Putin underestimated the number of casualties his army would suffer in a direct invasion of Ukraine.

The intelligence diplomacy push is partly inspired by Britain’s efforts to rally a strong response to the attack of a Russian nerve agent in England in 2018. The British government has publicly released information about the Russian involvement and shared other intelligence privately as he pushed his allies to expel Russian diplomats in response.

After lawmakers were briefed Thursday, Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Russia was churning out films and other “false evidence” that Ukraine was doing something to provoke Moscow. It is important, he said, “that the world understands that this is a fake operation to try to justify them in an invasion”.

Such false flag operations are “out of Putin’s playbook,” said Sen. Thom Tillis, Republican of North Carolina. He said that if Russia tries to “create a pretext, it will be rejected by the world community”.

The decision to publicize the plan comes as the Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, begins to consider legislation recognizing separatist-controlled eastern Ukraine as independent territories, just as Moscow has recognized areas of Georgia occupied by Russia.

If the Russian parliament recognizes Ukraine’s Donbass region as an independent state, then a Moscow-appointed head of that breakaway state could seek Mr. Putin’s help. The Russian president has repeatedly maintained that in such a case, an intervention would be in accordance with international law and precedents set by the United States.

US officials believe the shots in the video included Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drones that were used by the Ukrainian military.

In October, after an artillery attack killed a Ukrainian soldier, the Ukrainian military used one of the drones to launch a counterattack on a howitzer used by Russian-led separatist forces. Russia sent in jets and the situation got worse.

Russian disinformation in recent weeks has falsely accused NATO of planning an invasion of Ukraine or an intervention there. Highlighting the presence of weapons made by Turkey, a NATO ally, would allow the Russians to accuse the alliance of aggravating tensions in the conflict and of being guilty of the death of Russian speakers.

The bill under consideration in Russia would recognize what Moscow calls the People’s Republics of Donetsk and Lugansk. Russia considered recognizing the governments of the separatist-controlled region in 2014, but ultimately backed down.

The proposal was recently revived by members of the Communist Party, the second largest faction in the Russian Duma. Russian parliamentarians pushing the law have argued that Ukraine is planning an offensive to regain control of the region. If that happens, Russian lawmakers say, Russian-speaking residents will be denied their basic rights.

Ukrainian oppression of Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine is a common theme of Russian state media and websites controlled by Russian intelligence. But the reality is that language is not the hard line in Ukraine suggested by Moscow.

Emily Cochrane contributed reporting from Washington, and Anton Troyanovsky From Moscow.

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