The official said the United States had evidence that the agents were trained in urban warfare and the use of explosives to carry out acts of sabotage against Russian proxy forces.
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said the Department of Defense had credible information indicating that Russia had “pre-positioned a group of agents” to carry out “an operation designed to look like an attack on them or Russian speakers in Ukraine” to create a reason for a possible invasion.
The allegation echoes a statement released Friday by Ukraine’s Defense Ministry that Russian special services are preparing provocations against Russian forces with the aim of trapping Ukraine. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan hinted at the intelligence during a briefing with reporters on Thursday.
“Our intelligence community has developed information, which has now been declassified, that Russia is laying the groundwork for the possibility of fabricating the pretext for an invasion,” Sullivan said Thursday. “We saw this playbook in 2014. They are preparing this playbook again.”
Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said in a statement on Friday that “military units of the aggressor country and its satellites are ordered to prepare for such provocations.”
Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, denied that Moscow was preparing for provocations in Ukraine.
“So far, all these statements are unfounded and have not been confirmed by anything,” Peskov said.
The US intelligence discovery comes after a week of diplomatic meetings between Russian and Western officials over Russia’s amassment of tens of thousands of troops along the Ukrainian border. But the talks yielded no breakthrough as Russia would not commit to defusing and US and NATO officials said Moscow’s demands – including that NATO never admit the Ukraine in the alliance – were not valid.
A number of Ukrainian government websites were hit by a cyberattack on Friday, a development that European officials have warned will further escalate tensions over Ukraine.
“We’ve seen that playbook”
The US official said the Biden administration believes Russia may be preparing for an invasion of Ukraine “which could lead to widespread human rights abuses and war crimes if diplomacy fails to achieve her goals”.
“The Russian military plans to start 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.”
Kirby said Putin likely had direct knowledge of Russian false flag agents who could be used as a pretext for an operation in Ukraine.
“If the past is prologue, it’s hard to see that these kinds of activities could be, would be done without the knowledge if not the imprimatur of very high levels of the Russian government,” Kirby told reporters on Friday.
The United States has also seen Russian influencers begin to prepare the Russian public for an intervention, the official said, including highlighting stories about deteriorating human rights in Ukraine and the increased militancy of Ukrainian leaders.
“In December, Russian-language content on social media covering these three stories grew to an average of almost 3,500 posts per day, a 200% increase from the November daily average,” the report noted. responsible.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Friday that Russia believed NATO would increase its activities along its border with Ukraine if Moscow failed to obey Western demands.
“While our proposals are aimed at reducing military confrontation, defusing the overall situation in Europe, the exact opposite is happening in the West. NATO members are building up their force and air force. In the directly adjacent territories in Ukraine, on the Black Sea, the scale of exercises has increased several times recently,” Lavrov said.
Ukrainian government websites hit by cyberattack
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has invited President Joe Biden and Putin to hold three-way talks to discuss the security situation, Zelensky’s aide Andriy Yermak said, according to Ukrainian state media Ukrinform.
A US National Security Council official said President Joe Biden had been briefed on the attack. The official said the United States did not yet have an attribution for the attack, but would “provide Ukraine with all the support it needs to recover.”
The Pentagon said it was too early to attribute the attack, although Kirby noted, “This is a piece of the same kind of playbook we’ve seen from Russia in the past.”
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell condemned the cyberattack, warning that it contributes to the “already tense situation” in the region.
When asked if Russian governmental or non-governmental actors were behind the attacks, Borrell replied that while he didn’t want to “point fingers”, there was “some probability as to their origin”.
CNN’s Michael Conte, Katharina Krebs, James Frater, Joseph Ataman, Anna Chernova and Niamh Kennedy contributed to this report.