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Tom Clonan Will Russia stage a 'false flag' operation as a pretext to invading Ukraine?

Throughout history, false flag operations have been mounted many times to justify the invasion of a neighbouring territory.

LAST UPDATE | 8 Feb 2022

SPECULATION IS INTENSIFYING about an impending Russian invasion of Ukraine. Will Vladimir Putin roll the dice and send his troops across the border into Ukraine? If actually inclined to invade Ukraine, the military options open to Russia are somewhat limited.

Diplomatically, the stand-off between Europe, the US and Russia is at fever pitch. In recent days, both Washington and Downing Street have stated that ‘intelligence’ reports indicate that Russia plans a ‘False Flag’ operation to justify an incursion into Ukraine.

‘False Flag’ incidents are deception operations mounted by military or intelligence elements to simulate an attack on their own territory or citizens in order to provide a ‘casus belli’ – a provocation or justification for war.

Throughout history, false flag operations have been mounted many times to justify the invasion of a neighbouring territory.

Old tactics

Infamously, in August 1939, Nazi Germany staged an ‘attack’ on a German radio station on its border with Poland. In the ‘Gleiwitz Incident’ members of the SS staged the attack in Polish military uniforms. They also murdered a number of Polish military POWs and dumped their bodies at the scene – completing the hoax that was used to justify Germany’s subsequent invasion of Poland.

The US and Russia both have form in terms of false flag operations.

In September 2002, President George W Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair relied on a falsified ‘weapons dossier’ on Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) allegedly held by Saddam Hussein in order to argue for the catastrophic invasion of Iraq.

The US has also planned false flag operations in the past such as ‘Operation Good Times’, ‘Operation Northwood’ and ‘Operation Dirty Trick’ in order to justify interventions against neighbouring Cuba – none of which were actually carried out.

Russia has long used deception plans as part of its strategic and tactical doctrine. Referred to as ‘Maskirovka’, the Russian military regard deception as an integral part of their offensive and defensive operations in order to achieve ‘vnezapnost’ or surprise. The art of deception, or Maskirovka was perfected by the Russians in the Soviet military during World War Two and throughout the Cold War.

More recently, some commentators allege that Russian FSB agents were responsible for a series of explosions at apartment blocks in Moscow, Buinaksk, Volgodonsk and Ryazan in order to justify Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Chechnya in 1999. This has never been proven – but allegations of deception plans and false flag operations have featured in many 21st century conflicts.

The latest ‘intelligence’ reports from US and UK sources allege that Russia plans to fake some sort of attack on Russian speakers or Russian passport holders in Ukraine.

All at stake

Approximately 17% of Ukraine’s population are ethnically Russian – concentrated in the eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk. Whitehouse spokespersons have made unsubstantiated claims of having credible intelligence that such an operation is ‘imminent’ and that it will be used by Vladimir Putin to justify an invasion of Ukraine in the coming weeks.

If any of this is true – or if any of this comes to pass, the military options open to Russia are constrained and would likely be shaped by recent 21st-century experiences of asymmetrical warfare.

Russia has invaded a number of countries on Vladimir Putin’s watch with varying degrees of ‘success’. In 2008, Russia invaded Georgia – a country a fraction of the size of Ukraine with a tiny army of approximately 10,000 troops. The Russians concentrated a force of approximately ten times that – over 100,000 thousand troops to mount a lightning invasion. The operation lasted just over a week.

In the second Chechen War – 1999 – 2009 – overseen by Vladimir Putin, Russian forces also invaded a relatively small country with scant defences. Over 100,000 troops were massed to attack Chechnya – a country with a population of around 1.5 million people. Over the course of this ‘low-intensity’ conflict, over 7 thousand Russian troops were killed with estimates as high as 60,000 civilians slaughtered in Chechnya.

Ukraine, however, is a different prospect altogether. It has a population of over 44 million people and a well-armed standing army of approximately 200,000 troops. These troops have been involved in sporadic conflict within their own borders since 2014 and occupy defensive positions in readiness for any Russian incursion.

In many respects, Ukraine resembles Iraq – with a similar population, but a larger land mass.

The US has claimed that Russia has almost reached the troop numbers – around 110 to 130 ‘BTG’s or Battalion Tactical Groups – necessary to invade Ukraine and to take Kyiv.

It alleges that – similar to the American-led invasion of Iraq and ‘decapitation’ of Saddam’s regime in 2003 – Putin may seek to seize Kyiv this month and topple President Volodymyr Zelensky’s administration. Washington has suggested that Putin will replace him with a ‘Russian Puppet’ leader.

The US and her allies mobilised approximately 180,000 coalition troops in the initial invasion phase of Iraq from March to May in 2003. Their rapid armoured advance brought them to Baghdad with astonishing speed and Saddam’s regime collapsed as anticipated. In May 2003, I witnessed President Bush announce ‘Mission Accomplished’ to the American people in San Diego, California.

However, the US and coalition forces never succeeded in holding or re-building Iraq. The insurgency began immediately with catastrophic consequences for the Iraqi people. The war in Iraq cost the US trillions of US dollars and cost the lives of an estimated 200,000 innocent Iraqi civilians.

Will Putin follow through?

In recent days, some intelligence and military analysts have hypothesised that Russia intends to launch a massive and rapid armoured advance – over frozen ground – toward Kyiv in February and March.

The Russian military are keen observers of history and will have learned from the West’s recent misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed, Russia has emerged as a key power broker in central Asia and in the Middle East in the wake of these disastrous invasions.

In my view – it is unlikely that Russia will seek to start a war that does not present a swift, unequivocal victory for the Russian people. In my view, it is unlikely that Russia will want to be drawn into a war of attrition in Ukraine – similar to the Soviet experience in Afghanistan.

In my view, if Russia were to mount a full-scale invasion of Ukraine – with its population of 44 million citizens – it would result in catastrophic failure, with unimaginable consequences for Russia, Ukraine and all of Europe. It would bleed Russia white and would possibly result in the destruction of both parties to the conflict.

Based on the numbers of troops that Russia has massed on Ukraine’s borders, and based on the armour and artillery formations mobilised – it may be the case that in the event of any incursion, their concept of operations would be relatively limited in scale.

If ordered by the Kremlin, the forces concentrated suggest a possible occupation of Luhansk and Donetsk along with the possible seizure of a land corridor from the annexed Crimean Peninsula to Russia proper.

This is a dangerous moment for Europe and the world. Vladimir Putin and Sergei Lavrov have proven very adept at incorporating the use of force and power projection into their foreign policy imperatives.

Ukraine is a test of US and Europe’s coherence and unity. Post-Trump, post-Afghanistan and post-Brexit, the Transatlantic Alliance, NATO and the EU have been weakened considerably. World leaders will have to walk a fine line between not appearing to blink in the face of the Russian build-up and the absolute necessity to avoid war in Europe.

Dr Tom Clonan is a former Captain in the Irish armed forces. He is a security analyst and academic, lecturing in the School of Media in DIT. You can follow him on Twitter.


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