Why fears of a Russian 'false flag' attack are on the rise

Fears are rising that a major event on Ukrainian soil in the near future will be a Russian “false flag” operation as Moscow looks to regain momentum amid a successful counteroffensive from Kyiv. 

U.S. officials on Tuesday continued to vehemently reject Russia’s claims that Ukraine was planning to use a “dirty bomb” on its own land, allegations seen as a pretext for Moscow to escalate the war. 

The Kremlin assertions — which first came from Russia’s defense minister on Sunday and were repeated Monday and Tuesday by other Moscow officials — come on the heels of warnings from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that Russia is planning to blow up a huge dam near Kherson and blame it on Ukrainians.

Now, with Russia seemingly on the brink of losing its hold on the major city of Kherson, Western officials and experts alike are pushing back on suggestions that Ukraine could be behind any devastating attack on its own land.

“The warnings about Ukraine’s alleged readiness to use dirty nuclear weapons … should be considered an attempt to blackmail,” said Piotr Żochowski, a senior fellow at the Warsaw-based OSW Centre for Eastern Studies. 

Żochowski said such Russian threats, which seek to drastically escalate the conflict, are an often-used tactic from Moscow meant to “sow panic in the West” and an indication that its ground forces are struggling to repel Ukrainian attacks.  

The U.S. has been warning since before the war started that Russia may attempt a false flag, meant to misuse or hide the identity of a military force to justify a response. The Biden administration warned ahead of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 that the Kremlin might fabricate a reason for its invasion, including a staged attack on Russians by Ukrainian forces. 

Such a false flag would “try to create a public narrative that they are the victim and that Ukraine is the aggressor,” then-Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said on Feb. 3.    

Russian use of a dirty bomb, which it could then blame on Ukraine, would fall within that playbook. The unconventional munition, meant to spread radioactive material using traditional explosives, is not meant to eliminate a military target but rather incite fear and panic among a population.   

Russia since earlier this week has claimed that Ukraine is conspiring to use such a weapon. Though it has provided no evidence, Moscow officials claim Ukrainian scientific institutions hold the technology and its government plans to use it. 

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu reportedly made such an allegation on a Sunday call with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, though the Pentagon has declined to confirm the specifics of the conversation. 

Moscow made the claims again on Tuesday, this time to the United Nations (U.N.) Security Council. Russia’s deputy ambassador to the U.N., Dmitry Polyanskiy, afterward told reporters, without providing evidence, that the Kremlin believes there are two Ukrainian facilities possibly working on building a dirty bomb. 

Russia’s assertions have been roundly dismissed by Kyiv and its Western allies, which believe Moscow could carry out such a detonation in Ukraine itself and use it as a false flag operation.

Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters Tuesday that “from a U.S. standpoint, the allegations that Ukraine is building a dirty bomb are false,” adding that should Russia move to use such a weapon, “there would be consequences.” 

That follows a rare joint statement by the top diplomats for the United States, France and the United Kingdom, who on Sunday said their top defense officials had separately spoken with Shoigu and had rejected the “transparently false allegations” about a Ukrainian dirty bomb. 

“The world would see through any attempt to use this allegation as a pretext for escalation,” the statement said.  

The Ukrainian firm that oversees its nuclear plants said Tuesday that it “assumes” Russian forces “are preparing a terrorist act using nuclear materials and radioactive waste” stored at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which Russia has occupied since the start of the war.

However, U.S. officials so far have said they do not see evidence that Russia is preparing to use a dirty bomb or any other unconventional weapon, such as a strategic nuclear weapon, in Ukraine. 

But eight months into its war in Ukraine, Russia is struggling to hold on to territory after being pushed back from thousands of miles of land thanks to a successful counteroffensive started by Kyiv’s forces in September. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin is also dealing with growing criticism over his handling of the war, including the move to call up 300,000 reservists last month.  

In a move seen as desperate, Moscow’s army has now turned to missile strikes across Ukraine on civilian areas and infrastructure. Putin has also floated the threat of using nuclear weapons.  

And war experts say Russia could soon suffer another crucial blow from a Ukrainian counterattack in Kherson.

Zelensky claimed last week that Russia is laying the groundwork to blow up the Nova Kakhovka dam, including planting explosives inside the structure, which would likely flood a major area of southern Ukraine. 

Moscow, meanwhile, has accused Kyiv of planning to destroy the dam, leading Ukrainian officials to raise alarm over a possible false flag.

“From a military perspective, such a move could only benefit the Russians,” Żochowski said. “In the event that their defense lines in [Kherson] are broken and troops have to withdraw … blowing up the facility may temporarily slow down the Ukrainian attack and destroy some of their forces.” 

For now, the West is watching the situation in Ukraine closely. President Biden on Tuesday said he spent much of the day discussing the possibility that Russia could be planning to use a dirty bomb.

“I spent a lot of time today talking about that,” Biden said, adding that “Russia would be making an incredibly serious mistake for it to use a tactical nuclear weapon.”   

“I’m not guaranteeing that it’s a false flag operation yet,” Biden said. “We don’t know. It would be a serious, serious mistake.”