The US has intelligence that Russia is planning a ‘false-flag’ operation on its own forces in eastern Ukraine to create a pretext for invasion.
Officials on Friday also said they believed Russia was mounting a social media disinformation campaign to portray Ukraine as the aggressor.
The update, making the prospect of military conflict more immediate, came as Ukrainian government websites were taken offline in a ‘massive’ cyberattack, talks between Washington and Moscow collapsed and Russia held a combat readiness inspection of their troops.
The United States has evidence that operatives trained in urban warfare and sabotage will carry out these attacks on Russian proxy forces, an official told CNN on Friday.
‘The Russian military plans to begin these activities several weeks before a military invasion, which could begin between mid-January and mid-February,’ the official said.
‘We saw this playbook in 2014 with Crimea.’
Details emerged as Russia held snap combat readiness inspections of its troops on Friday and as several prominent Ukrainian government websites were taken offline Friday, authorities said, in a sweeping cyber attack.
Russian tanks of the Novorossiysk Guards mountain formation took part in maneuvers on Friday, further raising the temperature along the border with Ukraine where 100,000 Russian troops are massed
A militant of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) observes the area at fighting positions on the line of separation from the Ukrainian armed forces in Donetsk region, Ukraine January 14, 2022.
A Ukrainian Military Forces serviceman walks on a trench on the frontline with Russia-backed separatists near Luganske village, in Donetsk region. Kyiv has been on high alert since Russia moved 100,000 troops close to its border last year
A fighter jet is takes off in footage released by Russia’s ministry of defence. Amid concern over Russia’s troop buildup, Russia says it is up to Moscow alone where it moves its forces around on its territory and that they pose no external threat
The claim of a false-flag operation echoes Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense, which said that Russian special services were preparing provocations against Russian forces in order to frame Ukraine.
And a day earlier, President Biden’s national security adviser said that the U.S. had intelligence that Russia was preparing a pretext for invasion.
‘Our intelligence community has developed information … that Russia is laying the groundwork to have the option of fabricating a pretext for an invasion, including through sabotage activities and information operations, by accusing Ukraine of preparing an imminent attack against Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine,’ he told reporters at the White House
‘We saw this playbook in 2014. They are preparing this playbook again.’
But he also said officials had not determined that President Vladimir Putin had made a definitive decision to invade, suggesting a diplomatic resolution might still be possible.
The White House said President Biden had been briefing on the cyberattack, which took down a string of Ukrainian government websites.
Some displayed messages saying: ‘Be afraid and expect the worst.’
The inspections came as several key Ukrainian government websites were taken offline Friday, authorities said, in a sweeping cyber attack. Pictured: A laptop displays a warning message in Ukrainian, Russian and Polish, that appeared on the official website of the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry after a massive cyberattack, in this illustration taken January 14, 2022
President Biden’s administration has repeatedly warned President Putin of further sanctions if his forces invade Ukraine. In return, Putin is demanding that NATO guarantees it will not allow Ukraine to join the defense alliance
American Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Michael Carpenter said the world was facing a ‘crisis in European security’ after the final round of talks Thursday
A Ukrainian foreign ministry spokesman confirmed details of a hack to AFP.
‘As a result of a massive cyberattack, the websites of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a number of other government agencies are temporarily down,’ he said.
The education ministry wrote on Facebook that its website was down due to a ‘global (cyber) attack’ that had taken place overnight.
The website of the cabinet and the emergencies ministry were also targeted in the attack, with services later restored to the government site.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility and Kyiv did not say who may have been responsible. Ukraine had blamed Russians with links to the Kremlin for previous attacks.
About 70 websites of national and regional government bodies were targeted, according to Victor Zhora, deputy chair of the State Service of Special Communication and Information Protection.
He stressed, however, that no critical infrastructure was affected and no personal data was leaked.
EU foreign policy chief Joseph Borrell said on Friday the bloc was mobilising ‘all its resources’ to aid Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Russia said it was running out of patience with its demand that NATO does not expand eastward, closer to Russia.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned that Moscow wouldn’t wait indefinitely for the Western response, saying he expected an answer from the US and NATO next week.
‘We have run out of patience,’ Lavrov said at a news conference.
‘The West has been driven by hubris and has exacerbated tensions in violation of its obligations and common sense.’
It comes after a string of meetings between the two sides this week that failed to bring a breakthrough. As a result, American officials have stepped up their warnings.
The U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said the result was a ‘crisis in European security.’
‘The drumbeat of war is sounding loud and the rhetoric has gotten rather shrill,’ Michael Carpenter said.