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Deputy NSA talks on Russia's possible 'false flag' attack to justify Ukraine invasion


The Biden administration says Moscow is planning to stage a false attack by Ukrainian forces to justify invading Ukraine. Here's how Pentagon spokesman John Kirby described it in an interview on NPR this morning.


JOHN KIRBY: This is just one of several options that they are exploring to try to create a public narrative that they are the victim and that Ukraine is the aggressor.

SHAPIRO: The Russian troops and military equipment at Ukraine's border have only grown over the last three months. Jon Finer is the White House deputy national security adviser. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

JON FINER: Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: So we just heard John Kirby say this false flag is one of several options Russia is exploring. Can you tell us what you know about the other options?

FINER: What I can tell you is that Russia has a long history of conducting operations like this where they will fabricate, essentially, some incident and then use that incident to justify military action that they wanted to take for wholly separate reasons. And the reason that we are talking about this stuff in advance is really twofold. One, we think it makes it a bit more complicated for them to conduct exactly this operation, should they choose to do that. But second, if they decide to go ahead anyway, it makes it a bit harder for them after the fact to use that operation as a legitimate justification for choosing to go to war.

And so, as John Kirby said, we don't know that this is the course that they're going to follow. We know it's something that is under consideration. And we believe that there is value in making that publicly known in advance.


Oh, I - it appears as though Ari's line has cut out. Yeah. Sir, there seems to be strategic intelligence leaks. Last month, the U.K. said the Kremlin was planning to install a pro-Russian leader in Ukraine. This week, the U.S. said there's a Russian false flag. We've seen little proof or evidence of either account. Do you know the evidence to be reliable?

FINER: So what I can say about this is that putting this information out into the public domain is just one aspect of an approach that is designed to counter an approach that the Russian government often takes, which is to put false information into the public domain to sort of muddy the waters in terms of why a conflict may or may not take place.

We are essentially attempting to counter false information with true information, information that we obtain through a number of means through our intelligence community that we verify, that we scrub for public release to make sure that it doesn't compromise any of the sources and methods that we used to gather that information and that we think would make it more complicated for Russia to wage a war that we think would be significantly damaging both to Ukraine and to the broader security situation across Europe and around the world.

KEITH: Putin released a strong joint statement with China's president, Xi Jinping, this morning - a meeting on the sidelines of the Olympics. Are you concerned that China could help support and prop up Russia if NATO allies push forward with Russia - with sanctions on Russia?

FINER: So, look. This joint Russia-China statement reflects an approach that both countries have already taken for some time to move closer together. It's important to note, however, that the meeting that took place comes as Russia is directly threatening Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity with over 100,000 troops on its border. This could and really should have provided China the opportunity to encourage Russia to pursue diplomacy and de-escalate the situation in Ukraine.

This is what the world expects, we believe, from responsible powers. It's the position, certainly, that the United States and our partners and allies have taken. But China chose to go a different path. If Russia further invades Ukraine and countries look the other way, it suggests that they are willing to tolerate or tacitly support, even, these efforts to coerce Ukraine. And that is an approach that we cannot get behind.

KEITH: Do you think that the close alignment between Russia and China in this time affects Putin's decision-making in any way about ordering an invasion during the Winter Olympics? Maybe he wouldn't do it for fear of stealing the spotlight from President Xi.

FINER: I've seen that analysis elsewhere, and it's, you know, far be it for me to comment on what is in Russian decision-makers' minds and what is in President Putin's mind. I will note that there is at least one previous instance of Russia choosing to go to war at or around the time of an Olympics, and it was another Olympic Games hosted by China in 2008 during the Beijing Olympics when Russia went to war in Georgia. So I think we're not ruling out any decision that the Russian government might take. And we are preparing for all possibilities because we said we believe that this could take place at any time.

KEITH: Well, and, of course, after the Sochi Olympics - or right around the Sochi Olympics is when Crimea happened.

FINER: Exactly.

KEITH: What assurances do you have that people in Europe, some of whom depend on Russian oil and gas to heat their homes, won't be left freezing in the cold if the invasion cuts off that fuel supply?

FINER: So we have been closely coordinating with all of our European partners and allies on exactly this question. We know how acutely the energy security situation in Europe is felt, not just, obviously, by governments but by populations in these places. And we are working with them on options to make sure that their supply of, in particular, natural gas is secure and is available, again, should Russia choose to do what it has done at times in the past, which is use natural gas supply as a lever against other countries to try to achieve political ends.

KEITH: The New York Times reports that Putin has basically spent the last eight years restructuring Russia's economy to withstand Western sanctions. Given that he interfered with Ukraine's politics in 2004, seized Crimea in 2014 and staged several recent cyberattacks on Ukraine, why do you think this time - at this time, threats of sanctions would deter him?

FINER: So I think a few reasons. One is that we are contemplating sanctions options that have not been used in the past, were not used in 2014 and that we believe will have significant and even severe impact on Russia's economy. But second...

KEITH: Like trying to cut off microchip access.

FINER: Again, that would be in the category of export controls, which we are also contemplating and which were also not used in 2014. But second and even more importantly, as you say, Russia may have taken steps to separate some of its financial system from the United States financial system for the reasons that you just described to avoid the pressure of sanctions. That is why it is so important that we have spent so much time in recent weeks and months engaging diplomatically with our European partners and allies so that they, too, are prepared to impose severe economic sanctions and export controls on Russia because their economy is so much more intertwined with the Russian economy. And the impact will be even more severe for that reason.

KEITH: Quickly, turning to Syria, yesterday the president described a dramatic raid that resulted in the death of an ISIS leader and some of his family members. The administration emphasized that all civilian casualties at that site came as a result of the action of that ISIS leader and another deputy there. Will the U.S. government provide evidence to substantiate that?

FINER: What I can say about this is that the method that the president and the commanders in the field chose to use to conduct this raid reflects their overriding concern with avoiding civilian casualties. They decided not to take an airstrike but to send U.S. forces in on the ground at considerable risk to minimize civilian casualties. And because of that, a number of children and a family that was living on the first floor that we believe had no awareness that the ISIS leader was in that same house were able to escape that building before the terrorists decided to blow it up.

KEITH: Jon Finer, White House Deputy National Security Adviser, thank you.

FINER: Thank you.


Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Lauren Hodges is an associate producer for All Things Considered. She joined the show in 2018 after seven years in the NPR newsroom as a producer and editor. She doesn't mind that you used her pens, she just likes them a certain way and asks that you put them back the way you found them, thanks. Despite years working on interviews with notable politicians, public figures, and celebrities for NPR, Hodges completely lost her cool when she heard RuPaul's voice and was told to sit quietly in a corner during the rest of the interview. She promises to do better next time.