U.S. Exposes What It Says Is Russian Effort 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 a faked video that would build on recent disinformation campaigns, according to senior administration officials and others briefed on the material.

The plan — which the U.S. hopes to spoil by making public — involved staging and filming a fabricated attack by the Ukrainian military either on Russian territory or against Russian-speaking people in eastern Ukraine.

Russia, the officials said, intended to use the video to accuse Ukraine of “genocide” against Russian-speaking people. It would then use the report to justify an attack or have separatist leaders in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine invite a Russian intervention.

Officials would not release any direct evidence of the Russian plan or how they learned of it, saying to do so would compromise their sources and methods. But both a recent Russian disinformation campaign focused on false accusations of genocide and the recent political actions being taken in the Russian parliament to recognize breakaway governments in Ukraine lent credence to the intelligence.

If carried out, the Russian operation would be an expansion of a propaganda theme that American intelligence officials and outside experts have said Moscow has been pushing on social media, conspiracy sites and with state-controlled media since November.

The planned video was elaborate, officials said, with graphic images of the staged, corpse-strewn aftermath of an explosion, film of destroyed locations, faked Ukrainian military equipment, Turkish-made drones and actors playing Russian-speaking mourners

American officials would not say who in Russia precisely was planning the operation, but a senior administration official said “Russian intelligence is intimately involved in this effort.”

While it is not clear that senior Russian officials approved the operation, it was far along in the planning and the U.S. had high confidence that it was under serious consideration, officials said. Russian officials had found corpses to use in the video, discussed actors to play mourners and plotted how to make military equipment in the video appear Ukrainian or NATO-supplied.

While the plan sounded far-fetched, American officials said they believed it could have worked to provide a spark for a Russian military operation — an outcome they said they hoped would be made less likely by exposing the effort publicly.

The highlights of the intelligence have been declassified, in hopes of both derailing the plan and convincing allies and officials of the seriousness of the Russian planning. The officials interviewed for this article requested anonymity to discuss declassified, but sensitive intelligence before it was released publicly.

Avril D. Haines, the director of National Intelligence, and other top administration officials briefed members of Congress on the material on 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 both Washington and London have outlined elements of Moscow’s war planning, highlighting planned troop buildups, exposing false-flag sabotage plots and revealing Russian plans to install a friendly government in Kyiv.

The strategy aims to persuade allies and partners over that Russia is not posturing, and has real war plans that it could put into effect. The releases also aim to force Russia to drop and redraft plans, further delaying any invasion plan.

The longer the international community can delay a decision by President Vladimir V. Putin about whether to approve a military operation against Ukraine, the more of a chance there is that he will reconsider his plans, according to diplomats.

Some officials in the U.S. and Britain think Mr. Putin has underestimated how many casualties his military would suffer in any direct invasion of Ukraine.

The intelligence diplomacy push is modeled in part on Britain’s efforts to rally a strong response to the Russian nerve agent attack in England in 2018. The British government released information on Russian involvement publicly, and shared other intelligence privately, as it pushed allies to expel Russian diplomats in response.

The move to publicize the plan comes as the Duma, the Russian parliament, begins to consider legislation to recognize eastern Ukraine as an independent territory, much as they have recognized Russian-occupied areas of Georgia.

If the Russian parliament were to recognize the Donbas region of Ukraine as an independent state, a Moscow-appointed leader of that breakaway state could then request help from Mr. Putin. Mr. Putin has argued many times that in such a case an intervention would be in keeping with international law, and precedents set by the United States.

American officials believe the plans for the video included Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drones that have been used by the Ukrainian Army.

In November, the Ukrainian army used one of the drones to launch a counterattack on a howitzer used by Russian-led separatist forces to kill a Ukrainian soldier. Russia scrambled jets, and the situation escalated.

Russian disinformation in recent weeks has accused NATO of planning an invasion or intervention into Ukraine, a false claim. Highlighting the presence of weapons made by Turkey, a NATO ally, would allow the Russians to accuse the alliance of helping raise tensions in the conflict and being culpable in the death of Russian speakers.

The draft law under consideration in Russia would recognize what Moscow calls the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. Russia considered recognizing governments in the separatists controlled region in 2014, but ultimately backed down.

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

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

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