WASHINGTON — The United States has acquired intelligence about a Russian plan to fabricate a pretext for an invasion of Ukraine using fake video that allegedly builds on recent disinformation campaigns, senior administration officials say and others knowledgeable about the material.
The plan – which the US hopes to spoil by making it public – is to stage and film a fabricated attack by the Ukrainian military either on Russian territory or against Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine.
Russia, the officials said, intended to use the video to accuse Ukraine of genocide against Russian speakers. He would then use the outrage over the video to justify an attack or ask separatist leaders in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine to invite Russian intervention.
Officials would not release any direct evidence of the Russian plan or how they learned about it, saying it would compromise their sources and methods. But both a recent Russian disinformation campaign focused on false accusations of genocide and recent political moves in the Russian parliament to recognize dissident governments in Ukraine have given the intelligence services credence.
If carried out, the Russian operation would be an extension of a propaganda theme that US intelligence officials and outside experts said Moscow had pushed on social media, on conspiracy sites and with the media controlled by the state since November.
The video was intended to be elaborate, officials said, with plans for graphic footage of the staged, corpse-strewn aftermath of an explosion and footage of destroyed locations. They said the video was also to include fake Ukrainian military equipment, Turkish-made drones and actors playing Russian-speaking mourners.
U.S. officials wouldn’t say who in Russia was specifically planning the operation, but a senior administration official said Russian intelligence was “intimately involved” in the effort.
Understanding Russia’s relationship with the West
Tension between the regions is rising and Russian President Vladimir Putin is increasingly willing to take geopolitical risks and press his demands.
A British government official said they had done their own analysis of the intelligence and were confident that Russia was planning to devise a pretext to blame Ukraine for an attack. The details of the intelligence, the official said, are “credible and extremely concerning”.
While it was unclear whether senior Russian officials had approved the operation, it was well advanced in planning and the United States was confident it was being seriously considered, officials said. Russian officials had found corpses to use in the video, discussed actors to play the mourners, and plotted how to make military equipment appear in the video as provided by Ukraine or NATO.
While the plan seemed far-fetched, US officials said they believed it could have worked to provide a spark for a Russian military operation – an outcome they hoped to make less likely by publicly exposing the effort.
The intelligence highlights have been declassified, hoping both to derail the plot and convince allies of the seriousness of Russian planning. Officials interviewed for this article requested anonymity to discuss declassified but sensitive information before it was made public.
Avril D. Haines, the director of national intelligence, and other senior administration officials briefed members of Congress on the material 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, Washington and London have outlined elements of Moscow’s war planning, highlighting planned troop buildups, exposing a false flag sabotage plot and revealing Russian plans to install a friendly government in Kiev.
The strategy aims to persuade allies that Russia is not faking it and has real war plans it could implement. The releases also aim to force Russia to abandon and reshuffle its plans, further delaying any invasion plans.
The longer the international community can delay a decision by President Vladimir V. Putin on whether to approve a military operation against Ukraine, the more likely he is to reconsider his plans, diplomats say.
Some officials in the United States and Britain believe Mr Putin underestimated the number of casualties his army would suffer in a direct invasion of Ukraine.
The intelligence diplomacy push is partly inspired by Britain’s efforts to rally a strong response to the attack of a Russian nerve agent in England in 2018. The British government has publicly released information about the Russian involvement and shared other intelligence privately as he pushed his allies to expel Russian diplomats in response.
Understanding the escalation of tensions over Ukraine
The decision to make the plan public comes as the Duma, the lower house of Russia’s parliament, begins to consider legislation recognizing eastern Ukraine as an independent territory, just as Moscow has recognized areas of Georgia occupied by the Russia.
If the Russian parliament recognizes the Ukrainian region of Donbass as an independent state, a head of this breakaway state appointed by Moscow could then ask for help from Mr. Putin. Mr. Putin has repeatedly maintained that in such a case, intervention would be in accordance with international law and precedents set by the United States.
US officials believe the shots in the video included Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drones that were used by the Ukrainian military.
Last year, after an artillery attack killed a Ukrainian soldier, the Ukrainian military used one of the drones to launch a counterattack on a howitzer used by Russian-led separatist forces. Russia sent in jets and the situation got worse.
Russian disinformation in recent weeks has falsely accused NATO of planning an invasion or intervention in Ukraine. Highlighting the presence of weapons made by Turkey, a NATO ally, would allow the Russians to accuse the alliance of aggravating tensions in the conflict and of being guilty of the death of Russian speakers.
the bill under consideration in Russia would recognize what Moscow calls the People’s Republics of Donetsk and Lugansk. Russia considered recognizing the governments of the separatist-controlled region in 2014, but ultimately backed down.
The proposal has been revived by members of the Communist Party, the second faction of the Russian Duma, in recent days. Russian parliamentarians pushing the law have argued that Ukraine is planning an offensive to regain control of the region. If that happens, Russian lawmakers say, Russian-speaking residents will be denied their basic rights.
Ukrainian oppression of Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine is a common theme of Russian state media and websites controlled by Russian intelligence. But the reality is that language is not the hard line in Ukraine suggested by Moscow.