U.S. accuses Russia of planning "staged" video as pretext for Ukraine attack
The U.S. claims to have information indicating that Russia is considering staging a "fabricated attack" by Ukrainian forces — including a "propaganda video" showing Russian casualties and fake mourners — in order to justify an invasion of Ukraine, according to a senior Biden administration official.
Why it matters: It's the second time in recent weeks that the Biden administration has publicly accused Russia of plotting an operation that would serve as a pretext to invade Ukraine. While Russian intelligence services have a history of weaponizing disinformation, the U.S. has not provided specific evidence for its claims.
Driving the news: Asked whether the U.S. would provide public evidence for the allegations, State Department spokesman Ned Price repeatedly declined to do so in order to "protect sources and methods."
- "If you doubt the credibility of the U.S. government, of the British government, of other governments and want to, you know, find solace in information that the Russians are putting out, that is for you to do," Price told a reporter in a heated exchange.
Details: The U.S. believes that Russian intelligence services are "intimately involved" in the planning of the fabricated attack, including the recruitment of actors, according to the senior administration official.
- The potential propaganda video would likely "depict graphic scenes of a staged false explosion with corpses, actors depicting mourners, and images of destroyed locations and military equipment," the official said.
- The video could also feature Turkish drones or other military equipment provided to Ukraine by NATO countries "as a means to implicate NATO in the attack," giving Putin "the spark he needs to initiate and justify military operations against Ukraine."
Between the lines: Ukraine's use of a Turkish Bayraktar drone against Russian-backed separatists enraged Moscow last October, and it may have contributed to Russian fears that the military balance of power in war-torn eastern Ukraine may be shifting.
- Russia's state-run propaganda outlet RT claimed that a Ukrainian drone killed military personnel in separatist territory Wednesday, though the report was never confirmed.
- Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visited Kyiv on Thursday and announced an agreement to allow Ukraine to manufacture Turkish drones domestically.
The big picture: "This is one of a number of options Russia has developed, and we are publicizing it in the hopes that it dissuades Russia from its intended course of action," the official said.
- On Jan. 14, the U.S. claimed to have information indicating that Russia had "already prepositioned a group of operatives to conduct a false-flag operation in eastern Ukraine."
- The British government has also taken the rare step of publicizing purported intelligence about Russia's plans, accusing Moscow on Jan. 23 of plotting to install a pro-Russian puppet government in Ukraine.
- The Russian government has denied all of these allegations and insisted that it has no plans to invade Ukraine, despite its massive military buildup.
What they're saying: "We believe this kind of information, true information that goes to planning, goes to an option under consideration, may make it more difficult for this exact plan to be executed," U.S. deputy national security adviser Jon Finer said on MSNBC Thursday afternoon.
- "And even if it doesn't prevent this plan from being executed, we believe that after the fact, there will be significant disinformation deployed by the Russian government to say that they had to take military action for a reason like this," he added.
- "Putting this information out in advance will make it much harder for them to win the argument and easier for us to keep our partners and allies aligned, which is an important part of our strategy in this entire situation."
Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional details.