- Russia’s cyber warfare campaign against Ukraine exploded in December, a pattern that US intelligence agencies say could signal a ground invasion within a month.
- The new timeline was one of many details White House press secretary Jen Psaki shared on Friday about Russia’s intentions toward Ukraine, a longtime U.S. ally.
- Some US military analysts believe Russia has “pre-positioned a group of operatives to conduct a false flag operation in eastern Ukraine”, Psaki said.
WASHINGTON — Intelligence agencies monitoring Russian cyber operations against Ukraine believe Russia’s pattern of activity could signal a ground invasion of Ukraine within the next 30 days, the White House said Friday.
The new timeline is the latest sign of how imminent the Biden administration thinks a Russian attack on Ukraine could be, and the urgency of its efforts to broker a peaceful settlement.
In response to questions from NBC during briefings this week, officials declined to say whether the United States would arm Ukrainian militias to counter a Russian invasion. But now they are signaling to the Russians that such a plan is being considered.
The United States has pledged to respond to any military incursion with unprecedented economic sanctions against members of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. But it could trigger retaliatory measures from Moscow against the West – up to and including cuts in the energy that flows from Russia to the rest of the world. Russia is Europe’s largest supplier of oil, natural gas and coal, experts say.
A senior U.S. official and a former U.S. official confirmed to NBC News Friday night that the Biden administration is considering arming Ukrainian insurgents who would essentially wage a guerrilla war against Russian forces if Putin invades Ukraine.
Speaking to reporters at the White House on Friday, press secretary Jen Psaki said U.S. defense analysts first noticed a surge in December of coordinated social media disinformation via channels backed by Russia aimed at destabilizing the Ukrainian government.
“The Russian military plans to start these activities several weeks before a military invasion, which could start between mid-January and mid-February,” Psaki said.
The revelation came just hours after Russian cyber operatives disabled major Ukrainian government agency websites, replacing the agencies’ homepages with a message to all Ukrainians that read, in part, “Be afraid and expect the worst. It’s for your past, your present and your future.” .”
The threat to Ukraine is much more serious than a simple cyberattack. More than 200,000 Russian troops are currently positioned along the country’s border with Ukraine. Based on troop movements, US military analysts see the potential for many different invasion routes.
US intelligence agencies also believe Russia has already “pre-positioned a group of operatives to conduct a false flag operation in eastern Ukraine”, Psaki said. “Agents are trained in urban warfare and the use of explosives to carry out acts of sabotage against Russia’s own proxy forces.”
These Russian operatives are part of a larger effort by Moscow that is “laying the groundwork for having the ability to fabricate a pretext for the invasion” of Ukraine, Psaki said during his daily briefing.
As part of this false narrative, Psaki said Russian proxies on social media were already accusing Ukraine of plotting an imminent attack on Russian forces in eastern Ukraine.
That way, if prepositioned Russian agents were to carry out a stealth attack on Russian-backed forces in Ukraine, Moscow could point to its earlier accusation and blame the Ukrainians for the attack.
With a population of 44 million and a democratically elected government, post-Cold War Ukraine is a close US ally and a constant target for Moscow.
Psaki’s latest revelations follow multiple high-stakes discussions between US and European officials and their Russian counterparts.
For months, the Ukrainian government has warned American and European allies that Russian troops were massing along its eastern border. The buildup referred to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, a Black Sea peninsula, which sparked an international outcry and triggered a series of sanctions against Moscow.
The capture of Crimea also led to Russia’s withdrawal from the “Group of 8” or G-8, in reference to the world’s eight major economies.
In recent weeks, the Biden administration has issued repeated warnings that the United States stands ready to inflict greater economic countermeasures if Moscow invades Ukraine further.
“We are fully prepared and aligned with our partners and allies to impose these significant costs,” Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said Monday.
Sherman, who began talks with his Russian counterpart on Monday in Geneva, told reporters on a conference call that the sanctions were aimed at targeting major Russian financial institutions and export controls on crucial industries.
Victoria Nuland, US undersecretary of state for political affairs, said on Tuesday that the Biden administration was coordinating measures with NATO allies, the European Council as well as members of the G-7.
Since 2002, Ukraine has applied to join NATO, where the group’s Article 5 clause states that an attack on one member country is considered an attack on all.
Russian officials told a press briefing this week that it is “absolutely mandatory to ensure that Ukraine never, ever, ever becomes a member of NATO.”
“We need ironclad, watertight, bulletproof and legally binding safeguards. Not assurances, not safeguards, but guarantees,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said.
The Russian president has previously insisted that despite deploying thousands of troops along the Ukrainian border, Moscow is not preparing for an invasion from its ex-Soviet neighbour. Putin also defended the right to deploy troops to Russia’s borders and accused NATO of aggravating tensions by building up armies in states adjacent to Russia.
Russia has described NATO’s eastward expansion as a “red line” that poses security threats to Moscow.
Last month, President Joe Biden spoke with Putin twice amid heavy military buildup on the Ukrainian border. During the first call on Dec. 7, Biden refused to accept Putin’s “red lines” on Ukraine.
During the leaders’ final call on Dec. 30, Biden reiterated his concerns and renewed his threats that his administration would “respond decisively” alongside its allies and partners if Russia invades Ukraine.
— CNBC’s Patti Domm contributed to this story.