Ukrainian President Zelensky Has Accused Russia of “False-Flag Attacks”—What Does That Mean?

From a Wall Street Journal column by Ben Zimmer headlined “‘False Flag’: Flying Colors Designed For Deception”:

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has accused Russia of numerous “false-flag attacks,” most recently regarding explosions in the breakaway Moldovan region of Transnistria. Western observers backed up the claims, with the U.S.-based Institute for the Study of War concluding that “Russian forces likely conducted a false-flag attack in Transnistria…to amplify Russian claims of anti-Russian sentiment in Moldova.”

Russia, meanwhile, has made its own accusations against Ukraine of “false-flag operations,” which Mr. Zelensky has asserted are a projection of Moscow’s own intentions. “If you want to know what Russia’s plans are,” he has said, “look at what Russia accuses others of.”

In military and political contexts, a “false flag” action is conducted with the intent of disguising one’s own responsibility and pinning the blame on another party. Such a ruse can serve as a pretext for going to war, when an attack is staged on one’s own side and then blamed on an enemy.

The phrase “false flag” originated in the 16th century to describe intentionally misrepresenting one’s motives. A common story has it that the expression was born on the high seas, where pirate ships would disguise themselves by flying some country’s national colors before launching sneak attacks on approaching vessels.

It is a colorful tale (quite literally), but even though pirates did likely engage in this practice, early recorded uses of “false flag” refer not to actual ensigns flown on ships but to more figurative emblems. The earliest example noted in the Oxford English Dictionary comes from a 1569 tract in which the English writer Thomas Norton railed against an uprising of Catholic nobles opposed to Queen Elizabeth I. In an extended metaphor about “notable pirates” who fly “flags of all princes and countries,” Norton accused a bishop of hanging “a false flag of religion.”

Likewise, in a spiritual essay from 1648, Walter Montagu decried those who deceitfully display “colors of love and sincerity, when all the exterior civilities and correspondencies are but set out as false flags, by which the enemy may be boarded with the more safety.” And in a 1688 sermon, George Halley painted Catholicism as “a religion that acts in disguise and masquerade, changes frequently its colors, and puts out a false flag to conceal the pirate.”

Fast-forward a few centuries, and “false flag” had planted itself in the world of espionage. A 1966 New York Times article about an African spy network explained, “‘False flag’ agents are hired in the belief that they are spying on behalf of one country A when actually their employer is country B.” In the 1979 spy thriller “False Flags” by Noel Hynd, a character says that a “false-flag job” is when “someone is made to look like he’s working for one country when actually he’s in the employ of another.”

Conspiracy theorists have often resorted to “false flag” talk, as when so-called “truthers” claimed that the attacks of Sep. 11, 2001 were actually false-flag operations carried out by the U.S. or Israel. As Merrill Perlman observed in the Columbia Journalism Review in 2018, conspiratorial “false flag” accusations have exploded since 9/11, particularly on the far right.

In recent years, “false flag” has proved to be a useful expression in the field of information security, for misleading evidence that deflects responsibility for cyberattacks. As Brianne Hughes, author of the Cybersecurity Style Guide, wrote in the latest issue of the journal American Speech, false flags may “lead investigators away from the real attackers and toward red herrings” and are “intended to take up time and plant doubts about the ability to confidently attribute an attack to anyone at all.” Pirates of the information age deceive with computer code, not pieces of colored fabric.

Ben Zimmer is a linguist, lexicographer, and all-around word nut. He is the language columnist for the Wall Street Journal and contributing writer for The Atlantic.

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