WASHINGTON — The Biden administration on Friday accused Moscow of sending saboteurs to eastern Ukraine to stage an incident that could provide Russian President Vladimir V. Putin with a pretext to order an invasion of all or part of the country. .
The White House has not released details of the evidence it has gathered to support its charges, although an official said it was a mix of intercepted communications and sightings of people’s movements . In an e-mail, a US official wrote that “Russia is preparing the ground for the possibility of fabricating a pretext for the invasion, in particular through sabotage activities and information operations, by accusing Ukraine to prepare an imminent attack on Russian forces in eastern Ukraine”.
John F. Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, called the intelligence on the operation “very credible” when asked about it during a Pentagon briefing on Friday.
The US official who described the intelligence, who spoke on condition of anonymity, added that the assessment found that “the Russian military plans to begin these activities several weeks before a military invasion, which could begin between mid-January and mid-February. We saw this playbook in 2014 with Crimea. Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula, part of Ukraine, that year. It also sent military forces, which operated without wearing uniforms, to the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine, where the war continues.
The charge came a day after the conclusion of a week of diplomatic meetings with Russia, moving from Geneva to Brussels to Vienna, in a bid to defuse the confrontation. But those talks ended without any agreement to withdraw the roughly 100,000 Russian troops massed on the Ukrainian border, and without US or NATO agreement to Moscow’s demands to withdraw all forces from the former countries. of the Warsaw Pact who have joined NATO.
The release was clearly part of a strategy to try to prevent attacks by exposing them in advance. But without disclosing the underlying intelligence — some of which was provided to allies and shown to key members of Congress — the United States is exposing itself to Russian accusations that it is fabricating evidence. In recent years, Russia has frequently recalled the deeply flawed intelligence dossier the US built to invade Iraq, as part of an effort to discredit the CIA and other US intelligence agencies. as political agents.
The official said the United States had “information indicating that Russia has already pre-positioned a group of operatives to conduct a false flag operation in eastern Ukraine,” where Russian-backed forces are conducting a bitter war of attrition with Ukraine. government. The agents “are trained in urban warfare and the use of explosives to carry out acts of sabotage against Russian proxy forces”.
Two other US officials said the US assessment was the result of a combination of interceptions and on-the-ground movements of particular individuals. This could explain the administration’s reluctance to declassify granular information for fear of alerting Russian agents whose movements are being tracked.
“It’s a page from the Russian playbook,” said one of the officials. “We are very aware that Russia will try to invent a pretext to carry out a coup attempt.”
A senior administration official said he feared saboteurs or provocateurs could stage an incident in Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, creating a possible pretext for a coup. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said months ago he believed a coup attempt was underway, but it never materialized.
Understanding the escalation of tensions over Ukraine
The US accusation also encompassed disinformation operations, accusing in the media “the influencers are already beginning to fabricate Ukrainian provocations in state and social media to justify Russian intervention and sow division in Ukraine. These include, the official said, “a focus on stories about deteriorating human rights in Ukraine and increased activism by Ukrainian leaders.”
In his briefing, Mr Kirby said that when “we talk about Russian operatives, it could represent a mix of individuals within the Russian government, whether it’s from their intelligence communities, their security services or even their soldiers”.
He said the Russians frequently worked in such a way that it “wasn’t necessarily very clear to whom they specifically reported in conducting some of these more covert and clandestine operations.”