The United States on Friday accused Russia of sending explosives-trained saboteurs to fabricate a pretext to invade Ukraine, where government websites were destroyed in a Moscow-linked cyberattack.
The allegations and the incident mark a striking new escalation in tensions over Ukraine, just after a week of talks between the West and Russia that sought a diplomatic solution.
Russia has amassed tanks, artillery and tens of thousands of troops near the Ukrainian border as it demands guarantees that its neighbor will never join NATO – which on Friday announced new cyber cooperation with Kiev in attack response.
Detailing the intelligence findings, the White House said Russia was “setting the stage for the possibility of fabricating a pretext for the invasion” by blaming Ukraine.
“We have information that indicates Russia has already pre-positioned a group of operatives to conduct a false flag operation in eastern Ukraine,” White House press secretary Jen 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.”
US intelligence thinks Russia could begin operations several weeks before a military invasion, which could begin between mid-January and mid-February, Psaki said.
Russia has denied plans to invade Ukraine and quickly dismissed the latest US statements, with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov calling them “baseless”.
‘Be afraid’ As the world is on high alert for any signs of an invasion, government sites across Ukraine, including the Emergencies Ministry, Education Ministry and Cabinet, were closed early Friday .
Ukraine was still investigating but preliminary indications suggested that “hacker groups associated with the Russian secret service may be behind today’s massive cyberattack on government websites”, the official said. Foreign Ministry spokesman Oleg Nikolenko on Twitter.
The hacked websites displayed a message in Ukrainian, Russian and Polish saying: “All information about you has become public, be afraid and expect the worst”.
But Ukraine’s SBU security service said access to most sites was restored within hours, and preliminary information showed no personal information was leaked.
NATO said its experts were on the ground in Ukraine to offer support.
“In the coming days, NATO and Ukraine will sign an agreement on enhanced cybersecurity cooperation, including Ukraine’s access to NATO’s Malware Information Sharing Platform. “said General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg.
European Union foreign ministers, meeting in the French city of Brest, pledged their support, with several saying they had feared a cyberattack to prepare the ground for a Russian invasion.
“Some say the cyberattack could be a prelude to other activities, military activities,” Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg told reporters.
Russia has been repeatedly accused of hacking attacks in the former Soviet country and in the West.
In October 2020, the United States accused six Russians of carrying out cyberattacks on the Ukrainian power grid, the 2017 French elections and the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Russian military exercises US President Joe Biden warned his counterpart Vladimir Putin in two phone calls of the serious economic consequences of a Russian invasion.
Russia has pressured Ukraine since an uprising nearly a decade ago toppled a government that resisted calls to move closer to the West.
Moscow seized the Crimean peninsula in 2014 when a pro-Russian insurgency erupted in eastern Ukraine that has since claimed more than 13,000 lives.
US officials say Russia appears to be following a 2014 playbook when it also sought to stoke sentiment with allegations of abuse by Ukraine.
US Ambassador to NATO Julianne Smith told reporters in Brussels that there remained “a range of possible scenarios” on the ground, including a “full-scale conventional military attack”.
Footage released by the Russian Defense Ministry on Friday shows Russian tanks and infantrymen carrying out firing exercises near the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, near Ukraine.
Moscow said it was a response to what it sees as NATO’s growing presence in its sphere of influence, where it fiercely opposes Atlantic alliance expansion.
Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said on Thursday that Moscow saw no reason to hold a new round of security talks with the West after what he saw as the lack of progress in the talks in Geneva, Brussels and Vienna.
Ryabkov also said he did not rule out the possibility that Moscow could deploy forces to its allies, Venezuela or Cuba, if diplomacy fails.
Ukraine, however, renewed hope for diplomacy and said it had offered a three-way video conference involving its president, Volodymyr Zelensky, and Putin and Biden.
Zelensky’s aide Andriy Yermak, speaking to the Atlantic Council in Washington, said the United States supported the proposal but Russia had not responded.
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