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.
Meanwhile, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said Russia had ‘run out of patience’ with the West as Moscow demanded assurances that NATO would not expand closer to its territory.
The United States has evidence that operatives trained in urban warfare and sabotage will carry out these attacks on Russian proxy forces, officials told journalists on Friday, possibly weeks before an invasion.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki warned of human rights violations and war crimes if diplomacy failed and the Russian government went ahead with its plans.
‘We have information that indicates Russia has already pre-positioned a group of operatives to conduct a false flag operation in eastern Ukraine,’ she said.
‘The operatives are trained in urban warfare and using explosives to carry out acts of sabotage against Russia’s own proxy forces.’
She said it mimicked the playbook used when Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula, and included social media disinformation to show Kyiv as the instigator of violence.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the intelligence was ‘very credible.’
The Kremlin quickly denied it was preparing a provocation. Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the reporting was based on ‘unfounded’ information, according to the TASS news agency.
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. Kiev 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
Moscow has for weeks been massing tens of thousands of troops, tanks and artillery pieces along its eastern flank, sparking fears of an invasion, though the Kremlin has insisted it is merely a defence force (pictured, Russian forces currently massed in border regions)
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.
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.
Officials are trying to weigh whether Putin is ready to act on his desire to swallow up Ukraine or whether it is a feint to strengthen his regional influence.
Even so, the Biden administration is considering how to back a Ukrainian insurgency should Russia invade.
Options include training fighters in nearby countries, such as Poland, Romania or Slovakia, or working with NATO allies to provide medical services or even shelter during Russian offensives, officials told the New York Times.
In a sign of the complex forces in play, Russia also announced it had detained members of the ransomware group REvil at the request of the United States.
It marked a rare moment of collaboration at a time when relations are at rock bottom.
‘The investigative measures were based on a request from the… United States,’ the FSB domestic intelligence service said.
‘… The organised criminal association has ceased to exist and the information infrastructure used for criminal purposes was neutralised.’
Attack from multiple fronts, an escalation in Donbass or missile strikes: What a Russian invasion of Ukraine could look like – as military analysts fear it could be imminent
Western military analysts have suggested Russia cannot keep such troops deployed where they are indefinitely for financial and logistical reasons and would need to pull them back by summer.
Estimates of the numbers of new Russian troops moved closer to Ukraine vary from 60,000 to around 100,000, with a U.S. intelligence document suggesting that number could be ramped up to 175,000.
U.S. officials have said Russia might attack Ukraine as early as this month when the ground will be harder, making it easier for tanks and other armour to move swiftly.
At talks this week with the United States and NATO, Russia has sought security guarantees to defuse the crisis.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Friday Moscow was not ready to wait forever for a response and that it wanted a detailed written response to every Russian proposal.
But what might a Russian attack look like and what could it seek to achieve?
‘The current deployments are versatile. They keep Russia’s options open and therefore keep the defender guessing,’ said Keir Giles, an Associate Fellow at Chatham House.
Here are some possible scenarios.
Heavily armed Russian-backed separatists have controlled a swath of eastern Ukraine since 2014 and continue to exchange fire with Ukrainian government forces despite a 2015 ceasefire that ended major hostilities.
The conflict in Donbass has killed 15,000 people, Kyiv says. Ukraine has long accused Russia of having regular troops in the region, something Moscow denies.
Russia has accused Kyiv of harbouring plans to retake the region by force, something Ukraine denies.
A militant of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) checks a machine gun at fighting positions on the line of separation from the Ukrainian armed forces near the rebel-controlled settlement of Yasne (Yasnoye) in Donetsk region
In such a febrile atmosphere, the risk of a misunderstanding or unplanned escalation is greater, and Russia could use such an incident as a casus belli.
A source familiar with the Russian Defence Ministry’s thinking said this was the most likely scenario if Moscow decided to attack, but that he was unaware of any such decision. Kyiv might also be provoked into attacking by the separatists who could then ask Russia to send troops to help, he said.
Russian forces could expand the fighting in Donbass to draw Ukraine into a conventional conflict, said Neil Melvin, director of International Security Studies at the RUSI think-tank in London. He said Moscow could try to seize Ukrainian coastal areas on the Sea of Azov, creating a land bridge from the Russian city of Rostov through Donbass to Crimea, adding: ‘That would put the Ukrainian government under a lot of pressure.’
ASSAULT FROM CRIMEA
Russia has brought in new forces to Crimea, which it annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
Moscow could launch an attack on Ukraine from Crimea and seize territory up to the Dnieper River that could serve as a natural barrier against any Ukrainian counter-offensive, said Konrad Muzyka, director of the Poland-based Rochan consultancy.
The operation could begin with artillery, missile and air strikes on Ukrainian units in the south, and special forces units might seize bridges and railway junctions, allowing troops and tanks to advance, he said. There are only two roads from Crimea that could be blocked or destroyed, a potential weakness, he said.
Forces would secure control of a canal that provided Crimea with fresh water supplies until Russia annexed the region and Ukraine stopped the flow, he said.
A publicly available U.S. intelligence document said Russia could stage an invasion this month with up to 100 battalion tactical groups (BTGs) or some 175,000 troops. It said about 50 BTGs were already in place to the north and east of Ukraine and in Crimea to the south.
Seizing southern Ukraine could cut Kyiv off from the coast and NATO’s presence in the Black Sea, Melvin said, and could play well with Russian nationalists who see the area as the historic ‘Novorossiya’ lands or ‘New Russia’.
A multi-front assault might also involve a move into northeastern Ukraine, encircling but perhaps not entering cities where forces could get bogged down in urban fighting. Russian troops could also move into Belarus, opening a northern front for Ukraine that would put Russian forces closer to Kyiv, Giles said.
‘This of course would be the most costly economically, politically and in terms of human lives and that’s probably why it’s least likely,’ Melvin said of an all-out invasion.
Military analysts said even if it overwhelmed Ukraine’s army, which is half the size of its own, Russia could face guerrilla-type resistance, making it hard to hold on to captured territory.
MISSILE STRIKES OR CYBER-ATTACK
Giles said some scenarios could involve long-range missile attacks or cyber-attacks targeting critical infrastructure. Missile attacks would take advantage of Ukraine’s weaker anti-missile defences.
‘The different scenarios for how exactly Russia might seek to persuade the West to meet its (security) demands by punishing Kyiv don’t even necessarily include a land incursion,’ he said.
A string of government websites was hacked on Friday. Some showed messages saying: ‘Be afraid and expect the worst.’
The finger of suspicion immediately fell on Russia, although Ukrainian officials said critical infrastructure had not been targeted.
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
Meanwhile, the White House said President Biden had been briefed on the cyberattack, which took down a string of Ukrainian government websites.
Some displayed messages saying: ‘Be afraid and expect the worst.’
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.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility and Kiev 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.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said: ‘The United States and our allies and partners are concerned about the cyber attack, and the president has been briefed.
‘We are also in touch with the Ukrainians and have offered our support as Ukraine investigates the impact and nature, and recovers from the incident.
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.’
Pictured: Ukrainian troops take part in military drills as tensions across the country’s border with Russia continue to mount
The tensions prompted Sweden to step up its visible defense preparations. Here soldiers patrol in Visby Harbor
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.
That drumbeat has put countries in the region on alert.
Poland warned that Europe faced its greatest threat of war in the past 30 years.
And a senior military figure in Sweden said Friday that there had been increased Russian activity in the Baltic Sea which ‘deviates from the normal picture.’
‘We have decided to reposition our troops. It does not have to mean an increased threat, but we always want to adapt to the prevailing situation,’ Lt. Gen Leif Michael Claesson told The Associated Press.
Sweden, which is not part of NATO, has monitored landing craft from Russia’s northern navy entering the Baltic Sea.
As a result, Claesson who is the operations manager at the Swedish Armed Forces, said the country had raised its level of preparedness. Some of the measures taken would be visible and others would not, he added.