The official said the US has evidence that the agents are trained in urban warfare and in the use of explosives to carry out acts of sabotage against Russia’s own proxy forces.
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said the Defense Department has credible information showing that Russia has “prepared a group of agents” to “run an operation aimed at targeting them or Russian-speaking people in Ukraine.” seem” to create a reason for a possible invasion.
The accusation comes in line with a statement from Ukraine’s Defense Ministry on Friday, saying that Russian special forces are preparing provocations against Russian forces in an attempt to frame Ukraine. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan hinted at intelligence during a briefing with reporters on Thursday.
“Our intelligence community has developed information, now degraded, that Russia is laying the groundwork for having the ability to concoct the pretext for invasion,” Sullivan said Thursday. “We saw this script in 2014. They are preparing this script again.”
Ukraine’s defense ministry said in a statement Friday that “the military units of the aggressor country and its satellites are being ordered to prepare for such provocations.”
Dmitry Peskov, the spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, denied that Moscow was preparing for provocations in Ukraine.
“So far, all these statements have been baseless and unconfirmed,” Peskov said.
The US intelligence finding comes after a week of diplomatic meetings between Russian and Western officials over Russia’s rallying of tens of thousands of troops along its border with Ukraine. But the talks yielded no breakthroughs, as Russia would not commit to de-escalation and US and NATO officials said Moscow’s demands — including that NATO never admit Ukraine into the alliance — were unintended.
A number of Ukrainian government websites were hit by a cyber attack on Friday, a development that European officials say would further heighten tensions over Ukraine.
‘We have seen this script’
The US official said the Biden administration believes Russia could prepare for an invasion of Ukraine “which could lead to widespread human rights abuses and war crimes if diplomacy fails to fulfill their objectives”.
“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 scenario in 2014 with Crimea.”
Kirby said Putin is likely to have direct knowledge of Russian false flag agents who could be the pretext for an operation in Ukraine.
“If the past is a prologue, it’s hard to see that this kind of activity could be done without the knowledge, if not the imprimatur, of the very high levels of the Russian government,” Kirby told reporters on Friday.
The US has also seen Russian influential actors begin to mobilize the Russian public for intervention, the official said, including highlighting stories of the deterioration of human rights in Ukraine and the increased militancy of Ukrainian leaders.
“In December, Russian-language social media content that includes all three of these stories increased to an average of nearly 3,500 posts per day, a 200% increase from the November daily average,” the official said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Friday that Russia believes NATO will expand its activities along its border with Ukraine if Moscow does not comply with Western demands.
“While our proposals aim to reduce military confrontation and de-escalate the overall situation in Europe, the exact opposite is happening in the West. NATO members are building their strength and aviation. In the areas immediately adjacent to Ukraine, on the Black Sea, the size of the exercises has increased many times recently,” Lavrov said.
Ukrainian government websites hit by cyber attack
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has invited President Joe Biden and Putin to three-way talks to discuss the security situation, Zelensky aide Andriy Yermak said, according to Ukrainian state media outlet Ukrinform.
A US National Security Council official said President Joe Biden had been informed of the attack. The official said the US has not yet provided an explanation for the attack, but “will give Ukraine all the support it needs to recover”.
The Pentagon said it was too early to attribute the attack, although Kirby noted, “This is the same kind of script we’ve seen from Russia in the past.”
The European Union’s chief diplomat, Josep Borrell, condemned the cyber-attack, warning that it contributes to the “already tense situation” in the region.
When asked whether Russian governmental or non-governmental actors were behind the attacks, Borrell replied that while he didn’t want to “point the finger”, there was “a degree of probability of where they came from”.
Michael Conte, Katharina Krebs, James Frater, Joseph Ataman, Anna Chernova and Niamh Kennedy of DailyExpertNews contributed to this report.