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U.S. says Russia is planning a false flag attack against Ukraine

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The Biden administration says Russia is planning what's known as a false-flag operation to justify a further invasion of Ukraine. State Department spokesperson Ned Price suggested the Russians may be producing a video of a fake attack that could be pinned on Ukrainian forces.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NED PRICE: A video with graphic scenes of false explosions - depicting corpses, crisis actors pretending to be mourners, and images of destroyed locations or military equipment - entirely fabricated by Russian intelligence.

SHAPIRO: It's unusual for a State Department spokesperson to talk about intelligence matters. And for more on why he may be doing this, we're joined by NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen. Hi, Michele.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Hi there, Ari.

SHAPIRO: What's the point of the State Department making this information public?

KELEMEN: So Ned Price said there are two reasons that he was doing it. One is to deter Russia from carrying out, as you put it, this false-flag operation to justify an invasion. But secondly, if the U.S. can't deter Russia, well, it'll be harder for the world to believe whatever reasons Russia gives for taking military action against Ukraine. Take a listen to how he put it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRICE: We are making clear what we know so that, in the event it does take place, it will be clear to the world what this actually was and what it was not.

KELEMEN: Of course, the trouble is the U.S. allegations are rather vague. Price had to choose his words very carefully, based on what he said was declassified intelligence.

SHAPIRO: Have other American allies shared the same concerns?

KELEMEN: Yeah. I mean, the British government made similar allegations last month, saying the Russians are trying to fabricate a pretext to invade Ukraine. And today, the British foreign secretary, Liz Truss, issued a statement calling the U.S. reports - this is her quote - "clear and shocking evidence of Russia's underhand activity to destabilize Ukraine."

The Russians, of course, deny they're planning to invade, and they say all these allegations that the U.S. and the Brits have been making have amounted to nothing. But, you know, Ned Price got really defensive today when a reporter pressed him for evidence. Take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRICE: If you doubt the credibility of the U.S. government, of the British government, of other governments, and want to, you know, find solace in information that...

MATT LEE: Solace?

PRICE: ...The Russians are putting out...

LEE: (Laughter) I don't want to...

PRICE: ...That is for you to do.

KELEMEN: And, of course, no one's having - finding solace in that, but he pointed simply to the fact that the Russians have a record of provocations, and they have a hundred thousand troops practically encircling the country.

SHAPIRO: So as the language and finger-pointing intensifies, is there still diplomacy going on with Russia? Are there still hopes for talks?

KELEMEN: Yeah. I mean, the U.S. is trying to get the - Russia to pull back troops, de-escalate and negotiate, but Russian President Vladimir Putin so far says the West has ignored his top concerns about NATO expansion and Ukraine. What the U.S. and NATO have offered to talk about are things like arms control and reciprocal steps that the two sides can take to increase transparency, but the U.S. is waiting for a formal response from Putin about that offer.

SHAPIRO: Is there a visible off-ramp? I mean, is there anything else the U.S. is doing that might plausibly convince Putin to back down?

KELEMEN: Well, so far, it's really about deterrence. The U.S. is threatening sanctions. It's moving troops to NATO's eastern flank, and it's working with allies. And, you know, the allies have been active, too.

French President Emmanuel Macron spoke to Vladimir Putin today. The French and the Germans have been trying to revive a deal that was meant to resolve the war in eastern Ukraine, and they are continuing with that process, and so there are diplomatic off-ramps open should Putin choose.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen. Thank you.

KELEMEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.