Russia is preparing a pretext for invading Ukraine: US official

The Kremlin says reports that Russia is preparing a provocation are ‘unfounded’, as tensions reach new heights.

A serviceman takes his position in a trench at the line of separation in Yasne village
A top Ukrainian official has warned that the current standoff with Russia represents a 'life or death' struggle and said most Ukrainians would fight to defend the country [Alexei Alexandrov/AP Photo]

Russia is preparing to create a pretext for a broader invasion of Ukraine and has already prepositioned operatives to conduct a “false flag operation”, officials in Washington have warned, echoing statements from Kyiv.

Russian special services are preparing “provocations” against Russian servicemen located in Moldova’s breakaway region of Transnistria in order to accuse Kyiv, Ukrainian military intelligence said on Friday.

US officials have expressed similar sentiments. “Russian influence actors are already starting to fabricate Ukrainian provocations in state and social media to justify a Russian intervention and sow divisions in Ukraine,” a US official told the Reuters news agency on Friday.

Moscow has already dispatched operatives trained in urban warfare who could use explosives to carry out acts of sabotage against Russia’s own proxy forces in eastern Ukraine – blaming the acts on Kyiv – if Russian President Vladimir Putin decides he wants to move forward with an invasion, a US official told The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity.

Servicemen take their position in Donetsk
Moscow has accused Ukraine of hatching plans to use force to reclaim control over the areas controlled by Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, accusations denied by Kyiv [Alexei Alexandrov/AP Photo]

Moscow has dismissed those statements as “unfounded”, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said on Friday, according to Russia’s TASS news agency.

Troop deployment

Russia has amassed some 100,000 troops on the Ukraine border and diplomatic talks to try and resolve the standoff have not borne fruit.

Russia is demanding that the US and NATO provide written guarantees that the alliance will not expand eastward. Washington has called such demands nonstarters but said that it’s willing to negotiate with Moscow about possible future deployments of offensive missiles in Ukraine and putting limits on US and NATO military exercises in Eastern Europe.

A top official in Kyiv warned Friday that the current standoff raises questions about the “life and death” of Ukraine. Andriy Yermak, the head of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s office, added that most Ukrainians would defend the country.

Zelenskyy has proposed holding a meeting with US President Joe Biden and Russia’s Putin to discuss growing security concerns, Yermak said on Friday.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Friday that Moscow was not ready to wait forever for the US and NATO to respond to its security demands and that it wanted a detailed written response to every Russian proposal.

Lavrov said President Putin could then make a decision once Moscow had received a point-by-point response to its proposals and counter-proposals from the West.

Alexander Titov, a lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast who specialises in Russian foreign policy, said the ongoing tensions in Europe, including around Ukraine, help Russia put forward its concerns with NATO and the US.

“That’s Russia’s strategy … to raise the tension, put up the pressure, and force (the) re-establishment of a broad security architecture in Europe in its favour,” Titov told Al Jazeera.

Information warfare

As negotiations sputter, Ukrainian government websites were hit with a massive cyberattack on Friday.

The websites of the country’s cabinet, seven ministries, the treasury, the National Emergency Service and the state services website, where Ukrainians’ electronic passports and vaccination certificates are stored, were temporarily unavailable.

The websites contained a message in Ukrainian, Russian and Polish, saying that Ukrainians’ personal data has been leaked into the public domain. The Ukrainian government denied this, saying no personal data had been leaked.

“Be afraid and expect the worst. This is for your past, present and future,” the message read, in part.

Kyiv’s state security service said late on Friday that the cyberattack showed signs of Russian involvement.

White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said Moscow’s current activities are similar to what the Kremlin did in the leadup to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that had been under Ukraine’s jurisdiction since 1954.

Due to what she called “sabotage activities” and “information operations”, Psaki said on Friday that a full military invasion of Ukraine could begin between mid-January and mid-February.

The 2014 Crimea crisis came at moment when Ukraine was increasingly looking to strengthen ties with Europe and the West. During that period, Russia stepped up propaganda that Ukraine’s ethnic Russians were being oppressed in eastern Ukraine.

Moscow has long been accused of using disinformation as a tactic against adversaries in conjunction with military operations and cyberattacks.

In 2014, Russian state media tried to discredit pro-Western protests in Kyiv as “fomented by the US in cooperation with fascist Ukrainian nationalists” and promoted narratives about Crimea’s historical ties to Moscow, according to a report by Stanford University’s Internet Observatory.

INTERACTIVE- NATO expansion in Europe
[Al Jazeera]

Those activities are intensifying now, Psaki said. “Russian officials and influence actors are emphasising narratives about the deterioration of human rights in Ukraine and the increased militancy of Ukrainian leaders,” she said. Russian social media narratives are also blaming the West for escalating tension and highlighting humanitarian issues in Ukraine, she added.

The US has tracked nearly 3,500 social media posts per day emphasising these narratives in December, Psaki said, a 200-percent increase from the daily average in November.

As tensions rise and the threat of war looms, Moscow warned Washington that it would not exclude the possibility of sending its military assets to Latin America if the US does not halt military activities on Russia’s doorstep.

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan dismissed the statements about a possible Russian deployment to Cuba and Venezuela as “bluster in the public commentary”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies