Russia has been laying groundwork online for a 'false flag' operation

A satellite image shows battle group deployment and troop tents at Valuyki, Russia, on Feb 15, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - At the White House this week, President Joe Biden said the United States had "reason to believe" that Russia was "engaged in a false flag operation" to use as an excuse to invade Ukraine.

A new report by the European Expert Association, a research group that focuses on security in Ukraine, and the technology watchdog group Reset Tech said that since October, misinformation researchers had observed rumours circulating widely online and in Russian news media that could be groundwork for such an operation, or to help justify a military buildup.

Many of the rumours first started circulating on anonymous Telegram channels, and were then repeated in televised statements by Russian officials, the report said. Others started with statements from Russian officials and were repeated on Telegram channels until they became talking points among ordinary citizens.

"The rhetoric of the pro-Kremlin sources lately has become much more aggressive," Ms Maria Avdeeva, research director at the European Expert Association, said.

At the request of The New York Times, the Global Disinformation Index, a nonprofit research group, independently evaluated the report and said the research appeared reliable.

Here are some of the unsupported claims the European Expert Association researchers found.

Unsubstantiated Claim 1: Ukraine is planning to attack some separatist-held territories using chemical weapons

On Dec 21, the Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu alleged that the Ukrainian army was preparing to attack two separatist-held territories in Ukraine. The next day, the state-owned news agency RIA Novosti published a report that claimed, without proof, that a stash of chemical weapons had been given to Ukraine by the US, according to the researchers.

Throughout January and February, the researchers said, Russian-backed media spread the rumour, which was amplified on social media.

"Chemical weapons are already present on the territory of Ukraine," said a message in one anonymous Telegram channel with 24,500 followers. The post was viewed by 7,000 people.

Unsubstantiated Claim 2: The Ukrainian army is preparing to attack Donbass

Russian state media has been spreading rumours that the Armed Forces of Ukraine are planning an attack on Donbass, the separatist region in eastern Ukraine, with the help of American, British and Polish mercenaries, according to the researchers.

The rumour then spread on Facebook and YouTube. "The Ukrainian people are waiting for Mother Russia to free their younger sister from the Nazis and the State Department," said one Facebook post that collected nearly 100 likes. On YouTube, a video spreading the same unproven claim collected more than 31,600 views.

Ukrainian soldiers taking part in exercises in an undisclosed location in Ukraine on Feb 18, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

Unsubstantiated Claim 3: Nuclear power plants are at the centre of a US plot

In this narrative, the Russians accuse the Ukrainians and Americans of planting a false flag.

Since Jan.30, all 15 of Ukraine's nuclear power plants have been generating electricity, marking the longest stretch of full utilisation of nuclear energy in the country. That comes as Ukraine's authorities decided to disconnect from the power grid with Belarus and the Russian Federation and implemented the plan to do so.

Russian state media began to spread the idea that Ukraine was overestimating its ability to keep up with its energy needs, and that the country's nuclear facilities were in dire need of repair.

Russian media implied that Western countries could be organising to attack the nuclear facilities and place the blame on Russia.

On Feb 12, a Telegram channel with more than 15,000 followers posted that the British Special Air Service was preparing an attack on one of Ukraine's power plants.

And on Feb 15, the Telegram channel of a Russian war correspondent Alexander Kots alleged that Ukraine had asked for special equipment from the US to help mitigate a possible natural disaster, including to help with radiation and chemical fallout, according to the researchers.

Mr Kots added the unfounded accusation that the Ukrainians were devising a false-flag event - accusing Russia of preparing a terrorist attack against a nuclear power plant. His comments were seen by 83,900 people on Telegram, the researchers reported.

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