Photograph: Mikhail Metzel/AP
The US has alleged Russia has already positioned saboteurs in Ukraine to carry out a “false flag” operation to use as a pretext for a Russian attack, which Washington says could begin in the coming month.
The allegations, following similar claims by the government in Kyiv, come after the failure of a week of diplomacy to defuse the crisis provoked by Russia’s massing of over 100,000 troops near Ukraine’s borders. Moscow has persistently portrayed the crisis as a military threat from Ukraine against Russia, without providing any evidence.
“Russia is laying the groundwork to have the option of fabricating a pretext for invasion, including through sabotage activities and information operations, by accusing Ukraine of preparing an imminent attack against Russian forces in eastern Ukraine,” a US official said.
“We have information that indicates Russia has already prepositioned a group of operatives to conduct a false-flag operation in eastern Ukraine.”
“Russian influence actors already starting to fabricate Ukrainian provocations in state and social media,” the official said, noting that Russia used similar tactics ahead of the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
“The Russian military plans to begin these activities several weeks before a military invasion, which could begin between mid-January and mid-February.”
Related: Ukraine hit by ‘massive’ cyber-attack on government websites
Ukrainian officials had claimed that the provocation could take the form of a violent incident at the Russian embassy or consulate, which Moscow could then blame on far-right Ukrainian extremists.
The US claim came on the same day Ukraine was hit by a “massive” cyber-attack, with the websites of several government departments including the ministry of foreign affairs and the education ministry knocked out.
Officials said it was too early to draw any conclusions but they pointed to a “long record” of Russian cyber assaults against Ukraine, with the attack coming after security talks between Moscow and the US and its allies this week ended in stalemate.
Suspected Russian hackers left a message on the foreign ministry website, according to reports. It said: “Ukrainians! … All information about you has become public. Be afraid and expect worse. It’s your past, present and future.”
More details soon …