US intelligence says Russia prepares operation to justify invasion of Ukraine

(CNN) –– The United States has information indicating that Russia has prepared in advance a group of agents to carry out 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 in the use of explosives to carry out acts of sabotage against Russia’s own powerful forces.

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

“Our intelligence community has developed information, which has now been downgraded in importance, that Russia is laying the groundwork for having the option of fabricating 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 about what we see as this possible pretext to share with the press over the next 24 hours.”

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

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

The discovery by US intelligence comes after a week of diplomatic meetings between Russian and Western officials about the accumulation of thousands of Russian troops along the border with Ukraine. But the talks made no progress. This is because Russia did not commit to slowing the escalation and US and NATO officials said 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 Russia may be preparing for an invasion of Ukraine. Which “can result in widespread human rights violations and war crimes if diplomacy fails to achieve its objectives.”

“The Russian Army 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 Russian influential figures begin preparing 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 content on social media that covered these three narratives increased to an average of almost 3,500 posts per day. A 200% increase over the November daily average,” the official said.

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 out with a pessimistic outlook. Russia’s deputy foreign minister suggested the talks reached “a middle ground” and found no reason to continue them. While a senior US official warned that the “drum of war sounded loud” after diplomatic sessions.

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

“While our proposals seek to reduce the military confrontation, de-escalate the general situation in Europe, in the West the exact opposite occurs. The members of NATO are strengthening their force 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 cyberattack in Ukraine

This Friday, several websites of the government of Ukraine, including its Ministry of Foreign Affairs, suffered a cyberattack with a threatening text warning Ukrainians to “be afraid and expect the worst.” The Ukrainian government said that 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 indicated that the United States did not yet have a person responsible for the attack, but that it would “provide Ukraine with the support it needs to recover.”

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

When asked if Russian governmental or non-governmental actors were behind the attacks, Borrell replied that although he did not want to “point the finger”, there was a “certain probability of coming from there.”

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