Russia is trying to invent pretexts for invading Ukraine and may launch “a false-flag operation”, the US and UK have said.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said US intelligence reports suggest Russia could lay the groundwork in eastern Ukraine “several weeks” before a military invasion, which may start between mid-January and mid-February.
She said “our information” indicated that “Russian influence actors are already starting to fabricate Ukrainian provocations in state and social media to justify a Russian intervention and sow divisions in Ukraine”.
Ms Psaki said the US had information that Russian operatives were already positioned to carry out an operation in eastern Ukraine.
“The operatives are trained in urban warfare and in using explosives to carry out acts of sabotage against Russia’s own proxy forces,” she said.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quick to call the US statements “unfounded”.
On Saturday, UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss accused Russia of “waging a disinformation campaign intended to destabilise and justify an invasion of its sovereign neighbour Ukraine".
“Russia must halt its aggression, de-escalate and engage in meaningful talks” she said.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby echoed Ms Psaki’s comments.
He said the intelligence was “very credible” and that Russian operatives could include intelligence agents, the military and other security operatives.
“They often hybridise their personnel to such a degree that the lines are not necessarily really clear,” Mr Kirby said.
On Friday, Ukrainian media reported that authorities believed Russian special services were planning a possible “false flag” incident that could be seen as provoking additional conflict.
The new US intelligence was unveiled after a series of talks aimed at heading off the escalating crisis made little progress.
On Thursday, White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said the US intelligence community has not made an assessment that the Russians, who have massed about 100,000 troops on the Ukrainian border, have decided to take a military course of action in Ukraine but that Moscow was laying the groundwork to invade under false pretences, should Mr Putin decide to go that route.
He said the Russians have been planning “sabotage activities and information operations” that accuse Kiev of preparing for its own imminent attack against Russian forces in eastern Ukraine, and that the move was similar to the Kremlin's actions in the lead-up to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that had been under Ukraine’s jurisdiction since 1954.
Russia has long been accused of using disinformation as a tactic against adversaries in conjunction with military operations and cyber attacks.
In 2014, Russian state media tried to discredit pro-western protests in Kiev as “fomented by the US in co-operation with fascist Ukrainian nationalists” and promoted narratives about Crimea’s historical ties to Moscow, a report by Stanford University’s Internet Observatory showed.
Ukraine is monitoring the reported use of disinformation by Russia.
Efforts to directly influence Ukrainians appear to have continued during the conflict in eastern Ukraine, in which at least 14,000 people have died.
The Associated Press reported in 2017 that Ukrainian forces in the east constantly received text messages warning them that they would be killed and their children would be orphaned.
The US intelligence community has taken note of a campaign on social media by Russian influencers justifying intervention on the grounds of deteriorating human rights in Ukraine, suggesting an increased militancy of Ukrainian leaders and blaming the West for escalating tension.
“We saw this playbook in 2014,” Mr Sullivan said on Thursday.
“They are preparing this playbook again.”
Russia maintains it does not plan to invade Ukraine. But it has urged the US and Nato to provide written guarantees that the alliance will not expand eastwards.
The US has called such demands non-starters but said it is willing to negotiate with Moscow about future deployments of offensive missiles in Ukraine and putting limits on US and Nato military exercises in Eastern Europe.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Friday that Moscow would not wait indefinitely for the West's response.
He said he expects the US and Nato to provide a written answer next week.