Last Thursday, AP reporter Matt Lee accused State Department spokesperson Ned Price of crossing into “Alex Jones territory.” Lee made the argument after Price refused to give evidence to support a U.S. claim that Russia was planning to release a fake film showing a Ukrainian attack, which the Kremlin would then use to justify further invading the country.
Price did a poor job explaining the U.S. allegation against Russia and was unreasonably hostile to the media, but that doesn’t make the claim less plausible or less effective at undercutting Moscow’s potential information operation. The accusation is consistent with Russia’s current disinformation campaigns and its past use of fabricated evidence. Calling out the potential fake video also limits Moscow’s ability to credibly rationalize war based on similar lies.
The U.S. allegation was heavy on details but light on proof, suggesting the Biden administration had visibility into Russia’s activity and was not interested in exposing how it got that view. Moscow had already recruited actors and planned to use real corpses in the video, according to officials. Russian intelligence services were involved in the production, which would have been used to accuse Kyiv of genocide against Russian-speakers and as a reason to intensify the conflict in Ukraine.
Russian officials, state media, and proxy disinformation sites have been laying the groundwork for further invading Ukraine under the pretext of a fake Ukrainian or Western provocation for months. On November 1, 2021, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Kyiv was trying to draw Russia into a war. Since then, Russian disinformation about an imminent provocation has become more frequent and specific, with warnings of Ukrainian or Western terrorist attacks, chemical weapon attacks, and sniper fire.
Tellingly, last week, the Russian state-funded outlet RIA Novosti ran an article about a planned Ukrainian “information provocation to launch large-scale hostilities.” The article claimed Ukrainian and Western intelligence agencies were preparing “staged stories” about the “horrors of war” to serve as a rationale for attacking Russia. The Kremlin has a track record of accusing others of what it plans to do.
Russia’s recent propaganda also adds credibility to the U.S. claim that Russia would use a fake video to accuse Kyiv of human rights abuses. In December 2021, President Vladimir Putin claimed that the conflict in eastern Ukraine looked like “genocide.” State-directed media amplified the false statement, translating it into at least six languages. Russian officials regularly stoke the narrative that the Ukrainian administration is sympathetic to neo-Nazis and responsible for human rights violations.
The Kremlin’s history of fabricating evidence likewise increases the credibility the U.S. warning about the film. John Hultquist, the vice president of the threat intelligence firm Mandiant, pointed out that Russia has created “fake images of NATO troops desecrating cemeteries or hitting civilians with military vehicles.” In a more notorious example, Russian state-funded Channel One broadcasted a staged interview with a woman who falsely claimed Ukrainian nationalists crucified her three-year-old child. The interview was debunked, but not before it reached a large audience. It’s reasonable to expect Russia to return to this playbook.
It is also legitimate for reporters to ask questions. There have been U.S. intelligence failures in the past, which undermine U.S. government credibility at home and abroad. U.S. officials saying “trust us” is not a sustainable strategy to combat disinformation. Credible counterarguments rely on evidence, even if that evidence comes after intelligence is initially declassified to better protect sources and methods. It doesn’t take a security clearance, though, to see that Russia is spreading disinformation about a Ukrainian provocation and is willing to fabricate details.
In the end, the U.S. accusation was meant to deter the Kremlin from releasing this video—or at least to reduce the video’s credibility if it is distributed. It’s a welcome break from past U.S. practices of sitting on intelligence about disinformation until after the fact. These types of strategic pre-emptive warnings ensure disinformation doesn’t land with a degree of plausibility. It’s important to keep calling out false information and plans to spread it.