Small Wars Journal

Russia’s Floundering False-Flag Narrative

Wed, 04/06/2022 - 9:11pm

Russia’s Floundering False-Flag Narrative

By Peter Wilcox


In 2016, Christopher Paul and Miriam Matthews authored a paper titled “The Russian ‘Firehose of Falsehood’ Propaganda Model: Why It Might Work and Options to Counter It.”[1] The work leverages experimental research about persuasion and influence to arrive at several explanations for the characteristics that typify what Russia’s propaganda is, why it remains so effective, and what could realistically be done to blunt and contain its influence.[2] As the crisis between Russia and Ukraine unfolded, it became clear that Russia’s propaganda model was at play, but interestingly the model seems to have had little success garnering significant support over the very claims used to justify Russia’s wanton and unfounded attack, which had the explicit aim for an outright invasion.[3] Given the resounding unified international condemnation—to say nothing of Russia’s mass protest demonstrators, numbering in the thousands--and with no major super-global power supporting Russia at the moment, it appears its false-flag narrative has floundered. This essay reflects on some of the Kremlin’s current blunders to date in setting conditions in the information environment for a successful false-flag narrative that should have preceded its false-flag operation. These blunders should caution U.S. defense planners that those who ignore the impact of a hyperconnected global information environment on modern conflict do so at great peril.

Being First In The Information Environment Matters

More than a month before Russia launched military operations into Ukraine, U.S. intelligence reasoned—while closely monitoring tensions escalating between the two countries—that Russia was posturing for a major false-flag operation, the manufacturing of a fictitious event as a pretext for justifying military operations.[4] Consequently, the U.S. Departments of State and Defense used the global news networks and social media platforms to alert Ukraine and the rest of the world to Russia’s intent. Although Russia’s false-flag narrative, loosely defined as a fictitious story or rationale used to justify the execution of a false-flag operation, remained hidden for some time, the knowledge that Russia was about to conduct such an operation proved reason enough for the U.S. to act. Britain’s foreign office closely followed the U.S. announcement with details concerning Russia’s aim to oust Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s president, and to replace him with someone more friendly to Russia’s interests.[5] Shortly after, the overwhelming body of the United Nations denounced Russia’s aim to invade Ukraine for no reason other than to serve its own political aims.[6]


On February 24, 2022, a day before conducting a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russia amassed soldiers, tanks, and various military assault and air assets on the Ukrainian borders. Only then did Russia reveal its justification for its false-flag operation: the execution of a “special military operation” to protect the Donbas region with the objective of “demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine.”[7] The Kremlin reasoned to its citizens that it sought to liberate Ukrainians from persecution.[8] Digital fakes and manufactured videos were used to bolster this narrative.[9] The plan involved fabricating an attack by Ukraine’s military on its Russian-speaking citizens in the east or on Russian lands so the Kremlin could publicize and demonstrate to the world acts of genocide.[10] Problematic for the Kremlin was that the West seized the initiative to act first and fast to alert the global community across multiple domestic and international media channels of its intentions. In classic Boydian[11] terms, the West seized the opportunity to disrupt and dislodge Russia’s ability to establish conditions in the information environment for a believable false-flag narrative.


According to Paul and Matthews, countering false-flag narratives effectively requires alerting the target audience at the outset of preliminary exposure to disinformation even if details of the narrative remain hidden or murky.[12] The forewarning pre-emptively alerts the target audience to be ready so, when the narrative’s veil is lifted, the target audience understands that it is being deceived. The disinformation as Paul and Matthews observes, then occupies a role akin to suspicion or outright rejection: in a position of weakness qualified only by what the target audience already knows.[13]


The West gained the initiative by being first to act and first to establish impressions in the information environment regarding Kremlin’s intention for its military incursion into Ukraine, thereby laying the foundation for exploiting and unmaking its false-flag operation well before the Kremlin could reasonably respond. In the information environment where the battle of narratives unfolds, it is more important than ever to proactively be the first to launch the firehose of falsehoods in order to seize the initiative for influencing human behavior. That a decent portion of Russia’s own citizens failed to agree with the Kremlin’s narrative, protesting by the thousands the invasion of Ukraine, exposes this blunder.[14]

Donning “Raincoats” Early On Can Be Effective

It is not particularly surprising that the Kremlin’s primary target for the firehose of falsehood is its own citizens, followed by those residing in Ukraine and then those in the West. As the crisis endured, the Kremlin continued to leverage its media conglomerate and to press departmental secretaries to disseminate Putin’s repeated and false claims that the aim was to cleanse Ukraine of drug abusers and neo-Nazis, and that the fight was with those who have seized power, not the Ukrainian people.[15] Indeed, reports do indicate Russian citizens with relatives in Ukraine have bought into the Kremlin’s false-flag narrative.[16] And as a testament towards attempts to control the narrative, the Kremlin ramped up efforts to tamp down information about Ukraine available to its citizens.[17]


Yet in the 21st century, information and communications technologies available to the average Russian citizen were not in short supply, assuring many were very much aware of events transpiring in Ukraine. The Kremlin failed to appreciate the difficulty in controlling the flow of information in and out of Ukraine because, after all, Russia is digitally and globally connected to the rest of the world.[18] As The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman observed: “This is the first war” that is “covered on TikTok by super-empowered individuals armed only with smartphones, so acts of brutality will be documented and broadcast worldwide without any editors or filters.”[19]


News from the international global news networks and social media platforms, to say nothing of friends and family members residing on both borders, likely ensured raincoats[20] were unwittingly donned early enough so the firehose of disinformation posed little chance in altering their perceptions or beliefs. Yes, the Kremlin banned Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms, but not until well after the invasion was initiated, thus allowing its citizens a chance to become familiar with events unfolding in Ukraine.[21] Many Russians were arguably undermining the Kremlin’s own efforts to alter their behavior to align with the false-flag narrative.


Efforts of ordinary Russians to learn about the Ukrainian conflict are consistent with reports of the nearly 4,500 protestors who were arrested for attending anti-war rallies across Russia; this despite newly enacted legislation making it a crime to refer to Russia’s incursion into Ukraine “a war.”[22] As of March 7, 2022, nearly 13,000 have been arrested.[23] Although difficult to discern just how much of Russia’s population supports the conflict, one can conclude that many did not buy into the Kremlin’s disinformation. The inability of the Kremlin to appreciate just how hyperconnected the information environment is and the extent to which it could realistically control the flow of information into its country impeded its attempts to set conditions for a compelling false-flag narrative.

Do Not Be Surprised If The Battlespace Becomes Global

A third blunder the Kremlin made was a failure to understand the context, continuities, and consequences of an evolved information environment. At the moment, a surge of global legions of community volunteers, news networks, and international governments remains dedicated to unmasking Russia’s disinformation campaigns on an unpresented scale. Perhaps, as Charlie Warzel insists, the disturbing images of Ukraine’s severely damaged cities generated a crisis amongst the global community who sought to channel their efforts to debunk digital fakes in real time.[24] It is one thing for the West to take the media stage to unmask Russia’s true purpose for its incursion into Ukraine. It is quite another when a crisis in a country almost the size of Texas generates a global response to actively debunk disinformation in real time. Forbes refers to those sources as an “army of hackers” devoted to countering Kremlin state media disinformation, to launching multiple synchronized cyber-attacks against Russia.[25]


Social media platforms such as TikTok and Facebook have also banned Russia’s own state media from access in Europe.[26]  Elsewhere, information technology armies are countering Kremlin disinformation. [27] Global news networks have debunked their share of manufactured videos, images, and social posts. Arguably, it may be impossible to fully counter Russia’s disinformation initiatives. However, the global response has aided in diminishing Russia’s ability to effectively solidify its false-flag narrative. These difficulties underlie the Kremlin’s neglect to understand the continuities of the information environment: namely, that it would avail legions of global cyber warriors the opportunity to frustrate the Kremlin’s process in achieving its political aims decisively and quickly. The invasion of Ukraine generated a global response like no other previous conflict has, soliciting the emergence of some the world’s savviest technologists and hackers to act, on behalf of Ukraine, as an agency for change dedicated to dismantling the Kremlin’s propaganda efforts.

Do Not Underestimate The Impact Of Super-Empowered Individuals

In 2002, Thomas Friedman coined the term “super-empowered individuals,” noting the ability of such people to “act more directly and much more powerfully on the world stage,” using technology and networks to generate significant impacts.[28] Russia’s invasion of Ukraine elevated Zelenskyy, a former comedian, to a super-empowered status. The invasion warped the political fabric space; influenced able men and women to take up arms against Russia;[29] rallied the international community to enact severe economic sanctions on Russia;[30]influenced hundreds of businesses, corporations, and entertainment industries to shut their doors;[31] and extracted weapons and billions in financial aid from the West to support the ongoing fight against Russia.[32]


Across global news networks and social media platforms, Zelenskyy has become a symbol of a humble everyman elevated to hero status. When the U.S. first heard news that Russia’s military sought to execute him, they offered to extract him to safety; Zelenskyy replied, “The fight is here. I need ammunition, not a ride.”[33] Like a modern version of David seeking to protect his people from Goliath, Zelenskyy’s constant real-time updates, tweets, and emotional pleas to the global community to support the preservation of his beloved country resulted in a galvanization of global support that is unprecedented in a modern era conflict. The Kremlin failed to understand that in a hyperconnected world information and communication technologies not only give rise to super-empowered individuals, but also increases their reach and power for projecting compelling narratives. Equally, Russia failed to account for the very idea that Zelenskyy himself would become a super-empowered individual.


The historian Sir Michael Howard once observed that military professionals should seek to understand conflict within the social, human, moral, political, and psychological dimensions since all too often “the roots of victory and defeat … have to be sought far from the battlefield.”[34] Undergirding Howard’s caution are the technological advances that have intensified the interaction between each dimension. As Robert Ehlers Jr. and Patrick Blannin rightfully reminds us, the battlefield of the 21st century is “particularly information dense,” transcending “geographic boundaries in ways not previously possible”[35] and with “multiple information-heavy complex problems.”[36] The Kremlin’s current lackluster performance reflects a neglect and an appreciation for just how relevant the information environment remains in yielding battlefield success in modern warfare.


For the moment, the West has performed admirably and has responded sensibly to the conflict. Seizing the initiative to unmask the Kremlin’s false-flag operation has avoided ceding the information environment to their propaganda. While it would be premature to conclude Russia has lost the information warfare fight, we can at least say for the moment that its false-flag narrative has floundered, portending to get worse. The West must continue to act (not respond) sensibly to counter any foreseeable signs of new emerging false-flag narratives or risks ceding IE superiority to the Kremlin.



The views expressed are his alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.




[1] Christopher Paul and Miriam Matthews, “The Russian ‘Firehose of Falsehood’ Propaganda Model: Why It Might Work and Options to Counter It” (Perspectives PE-198-OSD, RAND Corporation, Santa Monica, CA, 2016).

[2] Paul and Matthews, “Russian ‘Firehose of Falsehood.’”

[3] “Statement by President Biden on Russia’s Unprovoked and Unjustified Attack on Ukraine,” White House Statements and Releases, February 23, 2022.

[4] Natasha Bertrand and Jeremy Herb, “First on CNN: U.S. Intelligence Indicates Russia Preparing Operation to Justify Invasion of Ukraine,” CNN Politics, January 14, 2022.

[5] Michael Holden, “U.K. Accuses Kremlin of Trying to Install Pro-Russian Leader in Ukraine,” Reuters, January 23, 2022.

[6] Humeyra Pamuk and Jonathan Landay, “U.N. General Assembly in Historic Vote Denounces Russia over Ukraine Invasion,” Reuters, March 3, 2022.

[7] Anton Troianovski, “Putin Announces a ‘Military Operation’ in Ukraine as the U.N. Security Council Pleads with Him to Pull Back,” New York Times, February 23, 2022.

[8] “Russia Says Invasion to ‘Free Ukrainians from Oppression,’” Moscow Times, February 25, 2022.

[9] Julian E. Barnes, “U.S. Exposes What It Says Is Russian Effort to Fabricate Pretext for Invasion,” New York Times, February 3, 2022.

[10] Barnes, “U.S. Exposes What It Says Is Russian Effort.”

[11] Among other things, the strategist John Boyd’s Observe-Orient-Decide-Act (OODA) Loop aimed to inspire decision-makers to constantly think through problems critically, to forecast threats, and to neutralize/paralyze the enemy’s cognitive processes, thereby forcing them to lose the initiative and momentum within the decision-making cycle.  

[12] Paul and Matthews, “Russian ‘Firehose of Falsehood.’”

[13] Paul and Matthews, “Russian ‘Firehose of Falsehood.’”

[14] Ivan Nechepurenko and Dan Bilefsky, “Thousands of Russians Protest President Vladimir V. Putin’s Assault on Ukraine: Some Chant: ‘No to War!’” New York Times, February 24, 2022.

[15] Andrew Roth, “‘It’s Not Rational’: Putin’s Bizarre Speech Wrecks His Own Pragmatic Image,” The Guardian, February 25, 2022.

[16] Valerie Hopkins, “Ukrainians Find That Relatives in Russia Don’t Believe It’s a War,” New York Times, March 6, 2022.

[17] Steven Lee Myers, “With New Limits on Media, Putin Closes a Door on Russia’s ‘Openness,’” New York Times, March 7, 2022.

[18] Myers, “With New Limits on Media.”

[19] Thomas Friedman, “We Have Never Been Here Before,” New York Times, February 25, 2022.

[20] Christopher Paul’s and Miriam Matthews’s “raincoat” metaphor insists that individuals exposed to good information backed by evidence, prior to disinformation, stand a chance of being immunized against propaganda.

[21] Hopkins, “Ukrainians Find That Relatives in Russia.”

[22] Brittany Shammas and Reis Thebault, “More than 4,500 Antiwar Protesters Arrested in One Day in Russia, Group Says,” Washington Post, March 6, 2022.

[23] Rachel Treisman, “Russia Arrests Nearly 5,000 Anti-war Protesters This Weekend,” NPR, March 7, 2022.

[24] Charlie Warzel, “The Information War Isn’t Over Yet,” The Atlantic, March 8, 2022.

[25] Warzel, “Information War Isn’t Over.”

[26] Elizabeth Dwoskin and Cat Zakrzewski, “Facebook and TikTok Ban Russian State Media in Europe,” Washington Post, February 28, 2022.

[27] Drew Harwell and Rachel Lerman, “How Ukrainians Have Used Social Media to Humiliate the Russians and Rally the World,” Washington Post, March 1, 2022.

[28] Thomas Friedman, Longitudes and Attitudes: Exploring the World after September 11 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002).

[29] Andrew E. Kramer, “‘Everybody in Our Country Needs to Defend,’” New York Times, February 26, 2022.

[30] Andrew Ross Sorkin, Jason Karaian, Sarah Kessler, Stephen Gandel, Michael J. de la Merced, and Lauren Hirsch, “How Economic Warfare Is Battering Russia,” New York Times, February 28, 2022.

[31] Julie Creswell, “Food Companies, Long Symbols of the West in Russia, Pause Operations,” New York Times, March 8, 2022.

[32] Amy Cheng, “Military Trainers, Missiles and over 200,000 Pounds of Lethal Aid: What NATO Members Have Sent Ukraine So Far,” Washington Post, January 26, 2022.

[33] “Live Updates: Zelenskyy Declines US Offer to Evacuate Kyiv,” Associated Press, February 25, 2022.

[34] Michael Howard, “The Use and Abuse of Military History,” in The Causes of Wars, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983), 188.

[35] Robert S. Ehlers Jr. and Patrick Blannin, “Integrated Planning and Campaigning for Complex Problems,” Parameters 51, no, 2 (Summer 2021): article 10.

[36] Robert S. Ehlers Jr. and Patrick Blannin, “Making Sense of the Information Environment,” Small Wars Journal, March 3, 2020.

About the Author(s)

Peter Wilcox is an officer in the United States Army.