AAMER MADHANI, NOMAAN COMMERCE and VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV
WASHINGTON (AP) – U.S. intelligence officials have determined that Russia is trying to create a pretext for a further invasion of its troops into Ukraine, and Moscow has already trained operatives in advance to conduct a “false flag operation” in eastern Ukraine, according to the White House. House.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Friday that intelligence data shows Russia is also laying the groundwork for a social media disinformation campaign that portrays Ukraine as an aggressor plotting an imminent attack on Russian-backed forces in eastern Ukraine.
Psaki said Russia has already deployed operatives trained in urban warfare who can use explosives to carry out acts of sabotage against Russian proxy forces, blaming Ukraine for these actions if Russian President Vladimir Putin decides he wants to continue the invasion.
“We are concerned that the Russian government is preparing for an invasion of Ukraine that could lead to massive human rights violations and war crimes if diplomacy does not achieve its goals,” Psaki said.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby described the intelligence as “very credible”. The US official, who was not authorized to comment on the intelligence and spoke on condition of anonymity, said most of the information came from intercepted communications and surveillance of people’s movements.
According to the findings of US intelligence, which were declassified and given to US allies before release, it is assumed that a military invasion could begin between mid-January and mid-February.
Ukraine is also monitoring possible use of disinformation by Russia. Separately, Ukrainian media on Friday reported that authorities believe Russian intelligence agencies were planning a possible false flag incident to provoke additional conflict.
The new US intelligence was released following a series of talks between Russia and the US and its Western allies this week in Europe aimed at preventing the crisis from escalating.
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said on Thursday that the US intelligence community has not concluded that the Russians, who have amassed about 100,000 troops on the border with Ukraine, have finally decided to take a military course of action.
But Sullivan said Russia was laying the groundwork for an invasion under false pretenses if Putin chose to go that route. He said the Russians were planning “sabotage and information operations” that accused Ukraine of preparing its own imminent attack on Russian forces in eastern Ukraine.
He said it was similar to what the Kremlin did ahead of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that has been under Ukrainian jurisdiction since 1954.
The Crimean crisis came at a time when Ukraine sought to strengthen ties with the West. Russia has stepped up propaganda about the oppression of ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine.
Russia has long been accused of using disinformation as a tactic against adversaries, in conjunction with military operations and cyberattacks. According to a report by the Stanford University Internet Observatory, in 2014 Russian state media tried to discredit the pro-Western protests in Kiev as “instigated by the US in collaboration with fascist Ukrainian nationalists” and promoted narratives about Crimea’s historical ties to Moscow.
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 constantly received text messages warning them that they would be killed and their children orphaned.
Nina Yankovic, a research fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington, said Russia’s disinformation efforts evolved between the preparations for the annexation of Crimea and the present. This time around, the Kremlin appears to be pushing anti-Ukrainian narratives, with top officials making belligerent public statements, said Yankovic, author of How to Lose the Information War: Russia, Fake News, and the Future of Conflict.
“The officials set the tone for the state media and they just work with it,” she said.
So-called “troll farms” that post fake comments are less powerful, she says, in part because social media companies have gotten better at handling them. According to her, Russia’s actions on social networks often play on doubts in Ukrainian society about whether the United States will support Ukraine in the conflict and whether the West can be trusted.
The U.S. intelligence community has taken notice of increased social media activity by Russian influencers justifying the intervention, highlighting the deteriorating human rights record in Ukraine, suggesting increased militancy among Ukrainian leaders, and blaming the West for escalating tensions.
“We saw this play in 2014,” Sullivan told reporters on Thursday. “They’re preparing this play again.”
The Russians, claiming they have no intention of invading Ukraine, are demanding written assurances from the US and NATO that the alliance will not expand eastward. The US has called such demands unfeasible, but has said it is ready to negotiate with Moscow about a possible future deployment of offensive missiles in Ukraine and about limiting US and NATO military exercises in Eastern Europe.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned on Friday that Moscow would not wait indefinitely for a response from the West, saying he expected the US and NATO to give a written response next week.
Lavrov described Moscow’s demands for mandatory assurances that NATO would not take Ukraine or any other former Soviet countries and station its forces and weapons there as necessary for the progress of diplomatic efforts to defuse the growing tensions around Ukraine.
He argued that NATO deployments and exercises near Russia’s borders were a security issue that needed to be addressed immediately.
“We have run out of patience,” Lavrov said at a press conference. “The West has been driven by arrogance and has escalated tensions in defiance of its commitments and common sense.”
Isachenkov reported from Moscow. This was reported by AP National Security journalist Robert Burns.