False-Flag Invasions Are a Russian Specialty

Ukraine wouldn’t be the first place that Russia’s military started a war by faking an attack.

By , the assistant director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Applied History Project, and director of research of its Intelligence Project.
Prague residents surround Soviet tanks in Prague on Aug. 21, 1968 as the Soviet-led invasion by the Warsaw Pact armies crushed the so called Prague Spring reform in former Czechoslovakia.
Prague residents surround Soviet tanks in Prague on Aug. 21, 1968 as the Soviet-led invasion by the Warsaw Pact armies crushed the so called Prague Spring reform in former Czechoslovakia.
Prague residents surround Soviet tanks in Prague on Aug. 21, 1968 as the Soviet-led invasion by the Warsaw Pact armies crushed the so called Prague Spring reform in former Czechoslovakia. AFP via Getty Images

Last month, as tensions between Ukraine and Russia escalated, the U.S. Department of Defense publicly warned that Russian operatives were planning a false-flag operation—a deception operation designed to give them an excuse to intervene in Ukraine. This was followed by an unusual public announcement by Britain’s foreign office alleging that the Kremlin was plotting to install a pliant, pro-Russian, leader in Ukraine. Then, this week, U.S. intelligence officials have published details of a Russian plot to fabricate a graphic video as pretext for an attack on Ukraine. The video apparently would include staged explosions, with corpses, actors, and mourners, to justify Russian intervention.

Amid the saber-rattling and the fog of war descending, it is difficult for all observers, including governments, to understand what will happen next in Ukraine. Rumors are swirling, and tensions are escalating day by day, even hour by hour.

The recent claims by Western governments, however, about Russian false-flag operations and its intention to install a pliant leader in Ukraine, are entirely unsurprising when seen from a historical perspective. Such moves were deliberate strategies on the part of the Kremlin during the Cold War, which Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin—an old cold warrior and former KGB officer—knows only too well. Understanding this history informs what we are seeing unfolding right now.

Last month, as tensions between Ukraine and Russia escalated, the U.S. Department of Defense publicly warned that Russian operatives were planning a false-flag operation—a deception operation designed to give them an excuse to intervene in Ukraine. This was followed by an unusual public announcement by Britain’s foreign office alleging that the Kremlin was plotting to install a pliant, pro-Russian, leader in Ukraine. Then, this week, U.S. intelligence officials have published details of a Russian plot to fabricate a graphic video as pretext for an attack on Ukraine. The video apparently would include staged explosions, with corpses, actors, and mourners, to justify Russian intervention.

Amid the saber-rattling and the fog of war descending, it is difficult for all observers, including governments, to understand what will happen next in Ukraine. Rumors are swirling, and tensions are escalating day by day, even hour by hour.

The recent claims by Western governments, however, about Russian false-flag operations and its intention to install a pliant leader in Ukraine, are entirely unsurprising when seen from a historical perspective. Such moves were deliberate strategies on the part of the Kremlin during the Cold War, which Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin—an old cold warrior and former KGB officer—knows only too well. Understanding this history informs what we are seeing unfolding right now.

In 1968, the Kremlin used its intelligence service, the KGB, to create false-flag incidents to justify Soviet military intervention in Czechoslovakia, where in January its new 46-year-old leader, Alexander Dubcek, was attempting to open the country to social democratic reform and create “socialism with a human face.” Spontaneous celebrations of popular support for reforms reached a climax during a May Day procession in Prague that year, where protesters carried placards reading “Long live the USSR—but at its own expense.” In the Kremlin, Dubcek’s reforms appeared to threaten the fabric of the entire Soviet bloc. Previously highly classified KGB archives reveal that the Soviet leader at the time, Leonid Brezhnev, and his KGB chairman, Yuri Andropov, used deep-cover KGB “illegals” to fabricate incidents in order to justify sending in the Red Army, crush Dubcek’s reforms, and install a Kremlin-loyal leader in Czechoslovakia.

As part of what was dubbed Operation Progress, revealed by material smuggled from KGB archives to the West, Andropov authorized the deployment of 20 KGB illegals. These were intelligence officers not under Soviet diplomatic (legal) cover but operating without cover (hence “illegal”), out in the cold. Andropov’s deployment of these illegals to Czechoslovakia was more than any had been deployed to any Western country in so short a time. They posed as Western journalists, businessmen, and students, in Czechoslovakia and surrounding countries. Their mission, controlled by KGB Directorate S, its illegals’ department, was to spy on Westerners there and undertake covert action (“active measures,” in the Kremlin’s vernacular) to justify Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia. They planted stories to smear Czech reformist politicians, tried to get journalists to publish provocative attacks on the Soviet Union, earmarked those who should be deported to the Soviet Union, and fabricated evidence of a Western plot to support Czech reformists. In Moscow’s narrative, pro-democratic reformers in Prague were being assisted by the CIA and the hidden hand of other Western intelligence services. They were trying to subvert the Soviet Union. Moscow thus had to stand strong and shore up its security in the face of Western meddling. Sound familiar?

In July, the Soviet illegals deployed to Czechoslovakia supposedly discovered an arms cache of vintage weapons from World War II, which were conveniently in packages labeled “Made in USA.” Soviet state-run media quickly published the story as evidence of a counterrevolutionary conspiracy by the West inside Moscow’s sphere of influence. Further details about the KGB active-measures plot in Czechoslovakia were revealed to me by a former Czech intelligence officer, Ladislav “Larry” Bittman, who specialized in active measures. I interviewed Bittman shortly before his death in 2018, as part of a book I am finishing on the centurylong intelligence war between Russia and the West. Bittman played a key role in liaising between the Czech intelligence service, the StB, and the KGB in the run-up to the Prague Spring. He explained to me that the KGB concocted a plan to murder Soviet wives of Czech citizens and then blame their murders on Western counterrevolutionaries. That was going to be the pretext for intervening. The plan never went into operation, but it does reveal the chilling lengths to which hard-liners in Moscow, like Andropov, were prepared to go to justify intervening in a Soviet state.

The Soviet prime minister, Alexei Kosygin, used supposed evidence of agents and saboteurs (in reality the work of the KGB) as an excuse for intervention in Czechoslovakia. The Kremlin also conveniently published a copy of a purported U.S. secret plan, which it conveniently obtained, to overthrow the Czech government. In August 1968, the Soviet Red Army and reliable Warsaw Pact allies duly rolled into Prague to restore Soviet orthodoxy, the biggest armed action in Europe since the end of World War II. Dubcek was forced to resign and transported to Moscow. (Out of office, he suspected, not implausibly, that the serious health issues he suffered were the result of his KGB-attempted poisoning.) Brezhnev installed a neo-Stalinist quisling regime in Czechoslovakia, led by Gustav Husak, who thereafter normalized relations with Moscow, which in practice meant compliant subservience. The Soviet leader thereafter established a Soviet grand strategy, the “Brezhnev Doctrine,” allowing it the right to intervene in countries where “socialism” (meaning Soviet orthodox rule) was under threat. The KGB chairman, Andropov, considered the crushing of the Prague Spring as a staggering Soviet intelligence success. Deception and military force won the day, lessons he would not forget during his long rule as KGB chief and when, 14 years later, he became Soviet leader himself—the first KGB chairman to do so.

In reality, there was no CIA plot behind the Prague Spring reforms. British records reveal that its spy chiefs had so little reliable intelligence that when Soviet forces moved into Prague, they were caught wholly by surprise. Meanwhile, in Moscow, Andropov also seems to have provided the Politburo with skewed intelligence, sitting on reliable KGB reporting from the United States that the CIA did not have a plot for Czechoslovakia. Bittman told me that his StB colleagues who tried to cast doubt on Moscow’s claims were silenced and threatened with violence. For Bittman, and many others, the Soviet crushing of the Prague Spring was a disillusioning experience. Soon after, he defected to the West, becoming a valuable source of intelligence for the CIA about Soviet active measures.

Soviet active measures in Prague in 1968 were not one-offs. Each of the major Soviet armed interventions to bring so-called fraternal assistance to wayward countries—Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Afghanistan in 1979—were accompanied by Soviet deception operations, including false flags. In fact, the KGB’s predecessor, the Cheka, established soon after the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917, used deception operations to help the Bolsheviks “pacify” Ukraine over the following years. Imposing Soviet rule in Ukraine—described diminutively in Moscow as the Ukraine—through fear and violence was an essential part of the Soviet Union’s creation a century ago, in 1922.

In the coming days and weeks, we should watch for incidents that give Putin justification for intervening in Ukraine. In many ways, Putin’s grand strategy is to recreate the Soviet Union—to Make Russia Great Again. As a former KGB officer, he knows Soviet intelligence history firsthand. He studied at the KGB’s elite Andropov Institute in the Moscow area, where recruits were instructed in active measures and other tradecraft. Putin’s mentor was Andropov, whose strategy was to combine military might with deception. In Putin’s Kremlin today, former KGB types and those with backgrounds in Russia’s post-Soviet intelligence services and military are the “men of force” (siloviki) wielding disproportionate influence. Putin’s recent actions suggest he is creating a modern Brezhnev Doctrine, giving him the right to intervene to impose fellow autocrats in Russia’s near abroad. He has intervened in Kazakhstan and has a pliant leader in Belarus. Ukraine would be the logical next step.

At the same time, Putin’s Russia is not simply the Soviet Union Part II. His regime is above all a kleptocratic mafia state, which fuses revanchist old traditions with new authoritarian Russian-nationalist ones. The more that can be done to expose its ugly reality, the better it will be for Russians, Ukrainians, and the world.

Calder Walton is the assistant director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Applied History Project, and director of research of its Intelligence Project. His new book, Spies: The Hundred Year Intelligence War will be published by Simon & Schuster (US) and Little Brown (UK).

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