DONETSK, UKRAINE - FEBRUARY 11, 2022: Denis Pushilin, head of the Donetsk People's Republic (DPR), holds a briefing on the situation in the republic. Pushilin and other Russian backed officials in the region have been making escalatory false claims

DONETSK, UKRAINE - FEBRUARY 11, 2022: Denis Pushilin, head of the Donetsk People's Republic (DPR), holds a briefing on the situation in the republic. Pushilin and other Russian backed officials in the region have been making escalatory false claims Photo by Nikolai Trishin\TASS via Getty Images

Just Whom Would a Russian 'False Flag' Operation Seek to Convince?

Russians themselves are likely the main target of the recent crescendo of disinformation, mostly from Moscow-backed separatists in Ukraine.

Just whom would a Russian “false flag” operation seek to convince? Western audiences have been warned for weeks that Moscow may try to stage a purported provocation for invading Ukraine—but foreigners may not be Vladimir Putin’s target.

Russians are living in a completely different information environment than their Western counterparts, especially when it comes to Ukraine. Over the last several months, the country’s largely state-controlled media has been rife with statements from Russian proxy forces.

Denis Pushilin, who heads the Donetsk People’s Republic, or DNR; Leonid Pasechnik, leader of the Russia-backed Luhansk People's Republic, or LPR, and their subordinates like LPR official Ivan Filiponenko, have been laying the groundwork for false claims that Ukrainians have attacked Russian forces. 

Russian separatists’ claims about Ukrainian government activity are a regular feature of the eight-year conflict. They frequently proffer accusations about violations of the Minsk II ceasefire agreement. But as Russian military forces have been building up on the Ukrainian border, these public comments have become more and more extreme. 

In November, Russian separatist forces claimed that the United States had shipped botulism toxins to the government in Kiev. In December, they claimed that Ukraine was pushing heavy military equipment and Ukrainian forces into the region at a rate not seen since 2014. 

In January, they claimed that Ukrainian forces had set up headquarters in school houses and that they were placing mines and explosive devices in schools elsewhere. They said that Ukraine has been working with the United States to plan attacks on separatist and civilian targets in the Russian-held region, and that Ukrainian soldiers were firing machine guns at apartment buildings. 

This month has brought the most outlandish claims yet, including accusations that Ukrainian forces are finalizing plans for airstrikes and a major offensive against separatist forces. They also claimed that the Ukrainian government had asked embassies around the world to forcibly return fighting-age Ukrainian men to prepare for the coming military strike,  and that the government was evacuating Ukrainian citizens from the places it intended to strike. Other claims said the British government was working with Ukrainian forces to stage a terrorist attack according to these Kremlin-backed separatists, and that Ukraine was blocking humanitarian assistance. And last week, Pushilin claimed that his forces had discovered more than 100 mass graves complete with the bodies of women and children. 

Kurt Volker, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO and U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine, called the escalating rhetoric part of Moscow’s effort to justify its military buildup to the Russian populace. “I would expect it to have gone up recently because it's consistent with Russia's military,” Volker said. “This is standard fare for the Russians. They just make stuff up and accuse others of doing things that are provocative, which are not true.”

Nina Jankowicz, a global fellow a the Wilson Center and the author of the book How to Lose the Information War: Russia, Fake News and the Future of Conflict, said, “Many of these quotes are attempts by the so-called DNR and LNR leaders to lay the pretext for further hostilities and blame whatever violence occurs on the Ukrainian government or the West. They ignore the facts on the ground regarding the war: that Russia began it, unprovoked; that it continues to fund the republics in Donbas; does not provide enough humanitarian assistance for the elderly left behind in the region; and often makes it impossible for the Ukrainian government to deliver such assistance as well; and that the separatist governments have been responsible for atrocities and human rights abuses since the beginning of the conflict. “ 

To Western audiences, the claims by Russian sources might sound dubious to downright ridiculous. If the Ukrainian government were really filling mass graves and planning terrorist attacks, then surely human rights groups and governments would be highlighting and denouncing such activity. But consider the effect any one of those statements might have in the Russian information vacuum, presented and repeated without any rejoinder from Ukrainians, independent human rights observers, or anyone else that might undermine the Kremlin narrative. 

One State Department official said that the Kremlin has diligently been working to paint Ukraine and Ukrainian forces in the east of the country as criminal, inhumane, and increasingly aggressive. “​​These Russian narratives distract from [Russia’s] long and ongoing history of actions against its neighbors by first, blaming the West for escalating tensions, second, highlighting supposed humanitarian issues in Ukraine that Russian ‘intervention’ could solve; and third, promoting Russian nationalism to encourage domestic support within Russia for military action,” the official said.  “To generate pretexts for military action, justify a Russian ‘intervention,’ and sow division in Ukraine, Russian influence actors and disinformation outlets are fabricating fictional Ukrainian provocations and spreading disinformation via all of their pillars – state media and official messaging, proxy sites, and social media amplifiers.”  

Those statements from Russian separatist forces are echoed by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who presents the Russian government’s position that Ukraine is responsible for the buildup of Russian forces on its border because it never implemented what it agreed to under the Minsk ceasefire provisions. 

That’s a lie, Volker said. “They just keep saying and saying and saying it and eventually people start to believe them. Publics or officials in France or Germany, they say ‘Oh, Ukrainians, you know, we know you're trying but you should do more!’ That's exactly what Russia wants, whereas Russia denies that it is a party to the Minsk agreements. It denies that it has forces in eastern Ukraine. It denies that the LPR and DPR are illegal armed groups, which are prohibited under Minsk. They just reject it completely.” 

What effect does the continuous repetition of a dubious statement have psychologically in an audience? Studies suggest it makes those statements more believable.