The Washington Post

U.S. warns of possible Russian ‘false flag’ action

AIM MAY BE PRETEXT TO INVADE UKRAINE Accusation­s come after talks fail to defuse tensions

- BY PAUL SONNE, MISSY RYAN AND JOHN HUDSON

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 pre-positioned 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 proxyforce­s,” 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.”

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 has 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 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 has 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 at the time served as the senior director for Russia on the White House National Security Council, 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 antiarmor 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.”

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