On Friday, the United States accused Russia of sending explosives-trained saboteurs to stage a pretext for invading Ukraine, in which government websites were attacked in a cyber-attack linked to Moscow.
The accusations and incident mark a striking new escalation of tensions over Ukraine, shortly after a week-long talks between the West and Russia seeking a diplomatic solution.
Russia has amassed tanks, artillery and tens of thousands of troops near the border with Ukraine, demanding guarantees that its neighbor will never join NATO – which on Friday announced a new cyber-cooperation with Kiev in response to the attack.
The White House, which describes the intelligence findings, said Russia was “laying the groundwork for the possibility of fabricating a pretext for invasion” by blaming Ukraine.
“We have information that Russia has already prepositioned a group of agents to carry out a false flag operation in eastern Ukraine,” said Jen Psaki, White House press secretary.
“The actors are trained in urban warfare and in using explosives to carry out acts of sabotage against Russia’s own proxy forces.”
The US intelligence service believes that Russia can begin operations several weeks before a military invasion, which could begin between mid-January and mid-February, Psaki said.
Russia has denied plans to invade Ukraine and quickly dismissed recent US statements, calling Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov “unfounded”.
With the world on alert for any sign of invasion, government offices across Ukraine, including the Ministry of Emergency Situations, the Ministry of Education and the Cabinet, went down early on Friday.
Ukraine is still conducting an investigation, but preliminary indications are that “hacker groups associated with the Russian intelligence services may be behind today’s massive cyberattack on state websites,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Oleg Nikolenko said on Twitter.
The hacked sites showed a message in Ukrainian, Russian and Polish saying: “All information about you has become public, be afraid and expect the worst.”
But Ukraine’s SBU security service said access to most sites was restored within hours, and preliminary information showed no personal information was leaked.
NATO said its experts were on hand in Ukraine to offer support.
“In the coming days, NATO and Ukraine will sign an agreement on enhanced cyber cooperation, including Ukrainian access to NATO’s platform for malicious information sharing,” said Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.
The European Union’s foreign ministers, who met in the French city of Brest, promised support, and several said they had feared a cyber attack that would set the stage for a Russian invasion.
“Some say the cyberattack could be the prelude to other activities, military activities,” Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg told reporters.
Russia has repeatedly been accused of hacking attacks in the former Soviet Union and in the West.
In October 2020, the United States accused six Russians of carrying out cyber attacks on Ukraine’s electricity grid, the 2017 French elections and the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Russian military exercises
In two phone calls, US President Joe Biden has warned his counterpart Vladimir Putin of serious economic consequences if Russia invades.
Russia has been putting pressure on Ukraine since an uprising almost a decade ago overthrew a government that opposed calls for a West Bank.
Moscow occupied the Crimean peninsula in 2014 when a pro-Russian uprising broke out in eastern Ukraine that has since claimed more than 13,000 lives.
US officials say that Russia seems to be following a game book from 2014 when it also tried to whip up emotions with accusations of abuse from Ukraine.
The US ambassador to NATO, Julianne Smith, told reporters in Brussels that there were still “a number of scenarios” possible on the ground, including a “full-scale conventional military attack”.
Films published by the Russian Ministry of Defense on Friday showed Russian tanks and infantry carrying out shooting exercises near the city of Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia near Ukraine.
Moscow said it was a response to what is seen as NATO’s growing presence in its sphere of influence, where it vehemently opposes the expansion of the Atlantic Alliance.
Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said on Thursday that Moscow saw no reason to hold a new round of security talks with the West after what he saw as no progress in the talks in Geneva, Brussels and Vienna.
Ryabkov also said he did not rule out the possibility that Moscow could deploy forces to ally Venezuela or Cuba if diplomacy failed.
However, Ukraine renewed hopes of diplomacy, saying it has proposed a three-way video conference involving its president, Volodymyr Zelensky, and Putin and Biden.
Zelensky Assistant Andriy Yermak, speaking to the Atlantic Council in Washington, said the United States supported the proposal but Russia did not respond.