US intelligence says Russia prepares operation to justify invasion of Ukraine

(CNN) –– The United States has information indicating that Russia has prepared a group of agents in advance to run a “false flag” operation in eastern Ukraine, a US official told CNN on Friday, in an attempt to create a pretext for an invasion.

The official said the US has evidence that agents are trained in urban warfare and the use of explosives to carry out acts of sabotage against Russia’s own proxy forces.

The indictment echoes a statement released by Ukraine’s Defense Ministry on Friday, which said Russian special services are preparing provocations against Russian forces in an effort to frame Ukraine. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan hinted at the intelligence information during a briefing with reporters on Thursday.

“Our intelligence community has developed information, which has now been downgraded, that Russia is laying the groundwork for having the option to fabricate the pretext for an invasion,” Sullivan said Thursday. “We saw this strategy in 2014. They are preparing this method again and we will have, the administration will have, more details on what we see as this possible pretext to share with the press over the course of the next 24 hours.”

“We saw this strategy” of Russia in Ukraine with Crimea

Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said in a statement Friday that “military units of the aggressor country and its satellites are ordered to prepare for such provocations.”

The US intelligence finding comes after a week of diplomatic meetings between Russian and Western officials over the buildup of thousands of Russian troops along the border with Ukraine. But, the talks failed to make any headway. This is because Russia has not committed to de-escalation and US and NATO officials have said that Moscow’s demands, including that NATO never admit Ukraine to the alliance, were not a starting point.

The US official noted that the Biden administration believes that Russia may be preparing for an invasion of Ukraine. Which “can result in widespread violations of human rights 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 strategy in 2014 with Crimea.”

Influential figures

The United States has also seen influential Russian figures begin to prepare the country’s audiences for an intervention, the official said. Even emphasizing the narratives about the deterioration of human rights in Ukraine and the increase in the militancy of Ukrainian leaders.

“During December, Russian-language content on social media covering these three narratives increased to an average of almost 3,500 posts per day. A 200% increase from the daily average in November,” the official noted.

Officials from the United States, NATO and Europe held high-level meetings this week with Russian officials. At the end of the three meetings on Thursday, both sides came away with a pessimistic outlook. Russia’s deputy foreign minister suggested the talks had reached “a middle ground” and found no reason to continue them. While a senior US official warned that the “drum of war was sounding loud” after the diplomatic sessions.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Friday that Russia believes NATO will increase its activity along its border with Ukraine if Moscow does not obey Western demands.

“While our proposals seek to reduce the military confrontation, de-escalate the general situation in Europe, the exact opposite is happening in the West. NATO members are strengthening their forces and their aviation. In the territories that are directly adjacent to Ukraine, in the Black Sea, the escalation of exercises has increased many times recently,” Lavrov said.

Massive cyber attack in Ukraine

This Friday, several Ukrainian government websites, including its Ministry of Foreign Affairs, were hacked with a threatening text warning Ukrainians to “be afraid and expect the worst.” The Ukrainian government said it appeared that Russia was behind the attack.

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 a person responsible for the attack, but would “provide Ukraine with the support it needs to recover.”

The head of European Union diplomacy, Josep Borrell, condemned the cyberattack. In that sense, he warned that it contributes to the “already tense situation” in the region.

Asked if Russian government or non-government actors were behind the attacks, Borrell replied that while he didn’t want to “point fingers,” there was “a certain probability of coming from there.”

James Frater, Joseph Ataman and Niamh Kennedy, all of CNN, contributed to this report.

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