US official: Russia is preparing a pretext for the invasion of Ukraine

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration has determined that a Russian effort is underway to create a pretext for its troops to further invade Ukraine, and Moscow has already prepositioned operatives to conduct “a false flag operation” in the east of Ukraine, a US official said on Friday.

Administration believes Russia is also laying the groundwork for a social media disinformation campaign by portraying Ukraine as an aggressor planning an imminent attack on Russian forces in eastern Ukraine, official says , who spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to discuss sensitive information in the file,

US intelligence officials have determined that Russia has already sent agents trained in urban warfare who could use explosives to carry out acts of sabotage against Russia’s own proxy forces – blaming Ukraine – if Russian President Vladimir Putin decides he wants to go ahead with an invasion, the official added.

The official did not provide details on how the intelligence community reached its decision or how much confidence it places in the assessment.

Ukraine is also monitoring Russia’s alleged use of disinformation. Separately, Ukrainian media reported on Friday that authorities believed Russian special services were planning for a possible false flag incident that could be seen as provoking further conflict.

The new US intelligence came to light after a series of talks between Russia and the United States and Western allies this week in Europe aimed at stemming the escalating crisis showed little progress.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said on Thursday that the US intelligence community had not assessed that the Russians, who massed some 100,000 troops on the Ukrainian border, had definitely decided to adopt a military course of action in Ukraine.

But Sullivan said Russia was preparing the ground to invade under false pretenses if Putin decided to go that route. He said the Russians were planning “sabotage activities and information operations” that accuse Ukraine of plotting its own imminent attack on Russian forces in eastern Ukraine.

He said the move was similar to what the Kremlin did before Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, the Black Sea peninsula that had been under Ukraine’s jurisdiction since 1954.

The Crimean crisis came at a time when Ukraine was increasingly seeking to strengthen its ties with Europe and the West. Russia stepped up its propaganda that ethnic Ukrainian Russians were oppressed in eastern Ukraine.

Russia has long been accused of using disinformation as a tactic against adversaries in conjunction with military operations and cyberattacks. In 2014, Russian state media tried to discredit pro-Western protests in Kyiv as “fomented by the United States in cooperation with Ukrainian fascist nationalists” and promoted stories about Crimea’s historical ties to Moscow. , according to a report by the Stanford University Internet Observatory.

Efforts to directly influence Ukrainians appear to have continued during the ongoing 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 were constantly receiving text messages warning them that they would be killed and their children would be orphaned.

Nina Jankowicz, a global fellow at the Washington-based Wilson Center, said Russia’s disinformation efforts evolved from preparing for its annexation of Crimea to now. This time the Kremlin appears to be driving anti-Ukrainian narratives with senior officials making belligerent public statements, said Jankowicz, author of ‘How to Lose the Information War: Russia, Fake News and the Future of the Conflict “.

“Officials set the tone for state media and they just follow,” she said.

So-called “troll farms” that post fake comments have less influence, in part because social media companies have become more effective at stopping them, she said. Russian social media efforts often play on existing doubts in Ukrainian society about whether the United States will support Ukraine in a conflict and whether the West can be trusted, she said. declared.

The U.S. intelligence community has taken note of a buildup on social media of Russian influencers justifying the intervention by emphasizing the deterioration of human rights in Ukraine, suggesting increased militancy by Ukrainian leaders and blaming the West for escalating tensions.

“We saw this playbook in 2014,” Sullivan told reporters Thursday. “They’re making this playbook again.”

The Russians, while maintaining that they have no plans to invade Ukraine, demand that the United States and NATO provide written guarantees that the alliance will not expand eastward. The United States called those demands a non-starter, but said it was willing to negotiate with Moscow on possible future offensive missile deployments in Ukraine and to limit U.S. and NATO military exercises in Europe. from the east.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned on Friday that Moscow would not wait for the Western response indefinitely, saying he expected the United States and NATO to provide a written response next week.

Lavrov described Moscow’s demands for binding guarantees that NATO will not embrace Ukraine or other former Soviet countries, or station its forces and weapons there, as essential for the progress of diplomatic efforts aimed at defusing growing tensions over Ukraine.

He argued that NATO deployments and exercises near Russia’s borders pose a security problem that needs to be addressed immediately.

“We’ve lost patience,” Lavrov told a news conference. “The West has been driven by hubris and has escalated tensions in violation of its obligations and common sense.”

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Isachenkov reported from Moscow

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