In recent weeks, US officials have warned that Russia is planning to stage an attack on its own military and broadcast the footage to the rest of the globe. They claimed that a “false flag” operation would provide Russia with an excuse to invade Ukraine by causing shock and anger. The Biden administration hoped to undermine the Kremlin’s emotional power by exposing the plot and preventing the Kremlin from fabricating a casus belli or excuse for war, by exposing it.
False flag attacks, on the other hand, aren’t what they used to be. It’s tough to get away with false flag strikes nowadays, with satellite photographs and live footage from the ground being broadcast widely and instantaneously on the internet — and journalists and armchair sleuths joining intelligence experts in evaluating the data. And, because of the prevalence of disinformation efforts, fabricating a justification for war no longer necessitates the cost or risk of a false flag — much alone a real attack.
FALSE FLAG ATTACKS HAVE A LONG HISTORY. False flag attacks have a lengthy history, as do suspicions that states are involved. The word was used to describe pirates’ use of friendly (and fake) flags to entice merchant ships to attack them. It was later coined as a catch-all term for any attack – real or imagined – perpetrated by instigators on “friendly” troops in order to implicate an adversary and provide the groundwork for revenge. There were several notable instances of false flag operations throughout the twentieth century.
In 1939, Nazi operatives used a German radio station near the Polish border to broadcast anti-German messages. In order to establish a justification for Germany’s planned invasion of Poland, they also murdered many civilians dressed in Polish military uniforms. In the same year, the Soviet Union blamed Finland for shelling in Soviet territory near the Finnish border, which it later invaded.
Similar plans have also been linked to the United States. Operation Northwoods was a plan to assassinate Americans and blame the attack on Castro, allowing the military to invade Cuba. The concept was ultimately rejected by the Kennedy administration. There have been other claimed false flag strikes involving the US government in addition to these genuine schemes. The sinking of the USS Maine in 1898 and the Gulf of Tonkin event in 1964 – both crucial parts of a casus belli – have both been suggested as plausible false flag assaults, while the evidence supporting these claims is limited.
DISINFORMATION, CYNICISM, AND GLOBAL VISIBILITY. The “9/11 Truth” movement, which claims that the Bush administration planned the collapse of the twin towers to justify civil liberties limitations and set the groundwork for invading Iraq, is more recent and much less fact-based. Right-wing commentators and politicians have promoted the conspiracy idea that Democrats perpetrated mass shootings like the one at a high school in Parkland, Florida, in 2018 to push for gun control legislation. It is not because false flag operations are widespread that people assume they occur. Instead, they establish credibility by appealing to the common belief that politicians are dishonest and take advantage of crises.
Furthermore, governments operate in relative secrecy and use coercion instruments like intelligence, well-trained agents, and weaponry to carry out their plans. Despite the logistical complications, vast number of people who would have to be engaged, and moral reservations leaders could have about murdering their own populace, it is not a tremendous jump to assume that leaders purposefully instigate high-impact catastrophes that they later exploit for political gain. It is uncontroversial to say, for example, that the Bush administration utilized the 9/11 attacks to rally support for its invasion of Iraq. Despite all evidence to the contrary, some people concluded that because the Bush administration gained politically from 9/11, it must have caused the attacks.