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Russia planning potential sabotage operations in Ukraine, U.S. says

Russian President Vladimir Putin listens during a meeting in the Kremlin on Jan. 13, 2022. (Mikhail Metzel/Pool/Kremlin/AP)

The Russian government has sent operatives into eastern Ukraine in preparation for potential sabotage efforts that could serve as a pretext for a renewed Russian invasion, the Biden administration warned on Friday, escalating tensions with Moscow after preliminary diplomatic talks in Europe reached an impasse.

U.S. intelligence has identified a group of operatives who have been prepositioned in east Ukraine potentially to conduct a “false flag” operation, a U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity under ground rules established by the Biden administration, said in an email.

“The operatives are trained in urban warfare and in using explosives to carry out acts of sabotage against Russia’s own proxy-forces,” the U.S. official said, referring to Russian-backed separatists who have been waging a war against Ukrainian forces in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

For months, top Russian officials have been warning that Ukraine is preparing an attempt to retake the separatist regions. Top Ukrainian and U.S. officials have denied any such plans and described the Russian comments as an effort to cast Kyiv falsely as an aggressor and lay the groundwork for a new invasion.

Administration officials declined to provide additional information about the identity or location of the Russian operatives in question. But the public accusation — first made at a briefing Thursday by White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan — reflected concerns by top U.S. officials that the likelihood of a new Russian intervention in Ukraine is increasing.

“We saw this playbook in 2014,” Sullivan said Thursday. “They are preparing this playbook again.”

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The new, more detailed accusations on Friday, first reported by CNN, came after crisis talks between Western and Russian officials this week failed to yield agreement on ways to defuse tensions over the more than 100,000 Russian troops massed near the border with Ukraine.

The allegations also came as Ukrainian government websites fell victim to a large-scale cyberattack, in which visitors to the sites were presented with the message, “Be afraid and expect the worst.” Ukrainian officials said it was too early to say who was behind the hack — which Kyiv described as “massive” — but noted Russia had been behind similar attacks before.

As negotiations took place in Europe this week, military analysts spotted Russia moving weaponry and other hardware from its Eastern Military District toward Ukraine. The district, which is on the opposite end of Russia in the nation’s far east, also announced snap combat readiness inspections, fanning worries that Moscow’s preparations for a military intervention were continuing.

Russia says ‘no grounds’ for further talks amid heightened tensions

Russia has denied that it is preparing to further invade Ukraine. Speaking to the Russian state news agency Tass on Friday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the allegations by the United States about the Russian sabotage operatives in east Ukraine unconfirmed and unfounded.

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said U.S. intelligence indicates “Russia is already working actively to create a pretext for a potential invasion, for a move on Ukraine.” He said an operation designed to look like an attack on Russian-backed separatists or Russian-speaking people in Ukraine could serve as an excuse to intervene.

“There’s a fidelity here to the information that we have that we believe is very credible,” Kirby said. “And again, we’ve seen this kind of thing before out of Russia. When there isn’t an actual crisis to suit their needs, they’ll make one up, and so we’re watching for that.”

Also on Friday, Andriy Yermak, head of the office of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, said that Kyiv had proposed holding trilateral discussions, potentially by videoconference, between Zelensky, Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Biden.

The Biden administration has said that Putin has not made a decision yet about whether to invade, but the U.S. official said Russia’s information operations were on the rise.

Moscow is increasing its use of social and state media to “fabricate Ukrainian provocations” ahead of possible military action from mid-January to mid-February, the official said.

The U.S. official said such posts have made allegations about worsening human rights conditions in Ukraine and the “increased militancy” of Ukrainian leaders. They also blame Western nations for stoking tensions. Last month, the number of daily posts along such lines in Russian-language social media increased by 200 percent from the previous month, the official said.

Top Russian officials also have embraced that narrative. In December, Putin falsely suggested that a Ukrainian “genocide” was targeting ethnic Russians in the country’s east, reviving rhetoric that Moscow used during the 2014 invasion to justify Russian action.

Later in the month, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said American military contractors had arrived near Ukraine’s eastern conflict zone with chemical weapons to stage a provocation — an allegation that the Pentagon said was false.

Putin has also argued that the United States and its allies have turned Ukraine into a beachhead from which to launch anti-Russian activities, creating a de facto NATO state on Russia’s border that is unacceptable to Moscow. He has demanded a security agreement from NATO that would formally stop the alliance’s eastward expansion and roll back its activities and presence in Eastern Europe.

The Biden administration has launched a full-scale diplomatic effort in response, offering to negotiate reciprocal security arrangements with Russia on missile placements and military exercises in Europe in the hopes of preventing a war. But top Russian officials have accused the United States of engaging only on issues of secondary interest to Moscow while stonewalling on the Kremlin’s central demands about limiting NATO and its activities.

The Russian government has said it is waiting for U.S. negotiators to relay written responses to their demands related to NATO before making decisions about whether to engage in further talks. The Biden administration has not said whether it would provide such a response.

Top U.S. and European officials have categorically ruled out changing NATO’s “open door” policy for new members or rolling back the alliance’s weaponry and infrastructure to its 1997 boundaries, as Moscow has demanded. Putin has yet to weigh in publicly on the results of the talks this week.

The administration’s decision to release details about the alleged Russian saboteurs in Ukraine — an attempt to combat potential disinformation in real time — comes as top officials in the White House, Pentagon and State Department who served in the Obama administration during Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine seek to apply lessons learned from the experience.

“I believe that our response in 2014 was too slow and too incremental,” Celeste Wallander, who served as the senior director for Russia on the White House National Security Council at the time, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday during a confirmation hearing for a top Pentagon post. “And if confirmed, I would apply the lessons that I learned.”

Wallander also said she supported entreaties by certain senators for the administration to provide Ukraine far more advanced weaponry to defend itself, including Stinger antiaircraft missiles.

During his briefing on Thursday, Sullivan said that unlike in 2014, the United States would implement extremely costly sanctions on Moscow immediately upon a new invasion, rather than taking a graduated approach that escalated sanctions over time. He said export controls would also be applied.

In recent weeks, the White House has tried to enhance Ukraine’s military capabilities without provoking an angry response from Moscow that would risk derailing diplomatic discussions with Russian officials in Geneva and Brussels.

In late December, the Biden administration quietly authorized an additional $200 million in security assistance for Ukraine, said congressional aides familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive security matters. Administration officials declined to say whether the equipment had arrived yet.

The package, first reported by CNN, included small arms and ammunition, secure radios, medical equipment and spare parts. But aides said the package also included more lethal equipment, including Javelins and other anti-armor artillery, as well as heavy machine guns.

Aides said the shipment of those weapons was kept quiet to avoid the Russians from walking out of scheduled meetings. “They didn’t want this to get in the way of the talks,” said one aide.

A State Department spokesperson declined to discuss the specific types of weaponry being sent to Ukraine but said the United States has given “more security assistance to Ukraine in the last year than at any point since 2014.”

Abigail Hauslohner, Karoun Demirjian and Dan Lamothe in Washington, David L. Stern in Kyiv, Robyn Dixon in Belgrade and Mary Ilyushina in Moscow contributed to this report.