The official said the United States had evidence that officers were trained in urban warfare and the use of explosives to carry out acts of sabotage against Russia’s own 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 downgraded, that Russia is preparing the ground 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.”
The Ukrainian defense ministry said in a statement on Friday that “the military units of the aggressor country and its satellites are being 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 discovery of US intelligence comes after a week of diplomatic meetings between Russian and Western officials over Russia’s build-up of tens of thousands of troops along the Ukrainian border. But the talks did not result in any breakthrough, as Russia would not commit to defuse, and U.S. and NATO officials have said Moscow’s demands – including that NATO never admit the Ukraine in the alliance – were unfounded.
A number of Ukrainian government websites were hit by a cyberattack on Friday, a development European officials said would further heighten tensions over Ukraine.
“We’ve seen that playbook”
The US official said the Biden administration believed Russia could prepare for an invasion of Ukraine “which could lead to widespread human rights violations and war crimes if diplomacy fails to achieve its goals.”
“The Russian military plans to start these activities several weeks before a military invasion, which could start 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 influence actors begin to prepare the Russian public for an intervention, the official said, including focusing on accounts of deteriorating human rights in Ukraine and the increased activism of Ukrainian leaders.
“During the month of December, Russian-language social media content covering all three stories grew to an average of almost 3,500 posts per day, a 200% increase from the daily average for November,” the manager noted.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Friday that Russia believes NATO will increase activity along its border with Ukraine if Moscow does not obey the West’s demands.
“While our proposals aim to reduce military confrontation, to defuse the overall situation in Europe, exactly the opposite is happening in the West. NATO members are strengthening their force and their air force. In the territories that are directly adjacent to Ukraine, on the Black Sea, the scale of the exercises has increased several times recently, ”Lavrov said.
Ukrainian government websites hit by cyber attack
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.
An official with the U.S. National Security Council 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.”
The European Union’s chief diplomat, 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 did not want to “point the finger”, 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.