The United States on Friday accused Russia of sending saboteurs trained in explosives to provide a pretext to invade Ukraine, where government websites have been destroyed in a Moscow-linked cyber attack.
The allegations and incident mark a striking new escalation of tensions over Ukraine, 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 Ukraine’s border as it demands guarantees that its neighbor will never join NATO – which on Friday announced new cyber cooperation with Kiev in response to the attack.
Detailing the intelligence findings, the White House said Russia was “laying the groundwork for the option of creating a pretext for the invasion” by blaming Ukraine.
“We have information indicating that Russia has indeed designated a group of activists to conduct a false flag operation in eastern Ukraine,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said.
“Activists are trained in urban warfare and in the use of explosives to carry out acts of sabotage against Russian proxy forces.”
Psaki said US intelligence believed Russia could begin operations several weeks before the military invasion, which could begin between mid-January and mid-February.
Russia denied plans to invade Ukraine and quickly denied recent US statements, calling them “baseless”, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
As the world braced for any signs of an invasion, government websites across Ukraine including the Emergencies Ministry, Education Ministry and Cabinet backed down early Friday.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Oleg Nikolenko said on Twitter that Ukraine was still conducting an investigation, but initial indications were that “groups of hackers linked to Russian secret services may be behind the massive cyber attack on government websites.”
The hacked sites displayed a message in Ukrainian, Russian and Polish that read: “All information about you is made public, be afraid and expect the worst.”
But Ukraine’s Security Service said access to most of the sites was restored within hours, and initial information showed that no personal information had been leaked.
NATO said its experts are on the ground in Ukraine to provide support.
“In the coming days, NATO and Ukraine will sign an agreement on strengthening cyber cooperation, including Ukraine’s access to the NATO malware information sharing platform,” said NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.
European Union foreign ministers, meeting in the French city of Brest, promised support, with many saying they feared a cyber attack that would pave the way for a Russian invasion.
“Some say that a cyber attack may be a prelude to other activities and military activities,” Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg told reporters.
Russia has repeatedly been 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 cyber attacks on Ukraine’s 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 dire economic consequences if Russia invaded.
Russia has put pressure on Ukraine since an uprising nearly a decade ago toppled a government that resisted calls to move closer to the West.
Moscow seized control of Crimea in 2014 when a pro-Russian rebellion erupted in eastern Ukraine, which has since killed more than 13,000 people.
US officials say Russia appears to be following a manual from 2014 when it also sought to stoke sentiment with allegations of abuse by Ukraine.
The US ambassador to NATO, Julian Smith, told reporters in Brussels that there remained a “range of possible scenarios” on the ground, including a “large-scale conventional military attack”.
Footage released by the Russian Defense Ministry on Friday showed Russian tanks and infantry carrying out maneuvers near the city of Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia near Ukraine.
Moscow said this was in response to what it sees as the growing presence of NATO in its sphere of influence, as it strongly opposes NATO expansion.
Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said on Thursday that Moscow saw no reason for a new round of security talks with the West after what he saw as the lack of progress in talks in Geneva, Brussels and Vienna.
Ryabkov also said he did not rule out the possibility that Moscow would send troops to Venezuela or Cuba if diplomacy failed.
However, Ukraine renewed hope for diplomacy and said it had proposed a three-way video conference that would include its president, Volodymyr Zelensky, Putin and Biden.
Andrey Yermak, a Zelensky aide, speaking to the Atlantic Council in Washington, said the United States supported the proposal but Russia did not respond.