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A Russian sniper takes part in military exercises at the Kadamovsky range in the Rostov region on Thursday. Photo: Reuters

US says Russia preparing ‘false-flag’ operation for Ukraine invasion

  • Moscow already has operatives in place to plant explosives, then blame the acts of sabotage on its neighbour, a US official says
  • The Biden administration also believes Russia is working on a social media disinformation campaign to frame Ukraine as an aggressor

The Biden administration has determined a Russian effort is under way to create a pretext for its troops to potentially further invade Ukraine, and Moscow has already pre-positioned operatives to conduct “a false-flag operation” in eastern Ukraine, a US official said Friday.

The administration believes Russia is also laying the groundwork through a social media disinformation campaign by framing Ukraine as an aggressor that has been preparing an imminent attack against Russian forces in eastern Ukraine, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to discuss sensitive intelligence on the record.

US intelligence officials have determined Russia has already dispatched operatives trained in urban warfare who could use explosives to carry out acts of sabotage against Russia’s own proxy forces – blaming the acts on Ukraine – if Russian President Vladimir Putin decides he wants to move forward with an invasion, the official added.

The official did not provide details about how the intelligence community came to its determination or how much confidence they have in the assessment.

A Ukrainian serviceman walks in a trench on the front line with Russia-backed separatists near to Avdiivka, Donetsk, southeastern Ukraine on January 9. Photo: TNS

Ukraine is also monitoring the alleged use of disinformation by Russia. Separately, Ukrainian media on Friday reported that authorities believed Russian special services were planning a possible false-flag incident that could be seen as provoking additional conflict.

The new US intelligence was unveiled after a series of talks between Russia and the US and Western allies this week in Europe aimed at heading off the escalating crisis made little progress.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan on Thursday said that the US intelligence community has not made an assessment that the Russians, who have massed some 100,000 troops on the Ukraine border, have definitively decided to take a military course of action in Ukraine.

But Sullivan said Russia is laying the groundwork to invade under false pretences should Putin decide to go that route. He said the Russians have been planning “sabotage activities and information operations” that accuse Ukraine of prepping for its own imminent attack against Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine.

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He said that the move is similar to what the Kremlin did in the lead-up to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that had been under Ukraine’s jurisdiction since 1954.

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

Russia 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.


Stray animals boost morale on Ukraine’s front lines as Russia and Nato remain at odds

Stray animals boost morale on Ukraine’s front lines as Russia and Nato remain at odds

Efforts to directly influence Ukrainians appear to have continued during the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine in which at least 14,000 people have died.


Associated Press reported in 2017 that Ukrainian forces in the east were constantly receiving text messages warning that they would be killed and their children would be made orphans.

Nina Jankowicz, a global fellow at the Washington-based Wilson Centre, said Russia’s disinformation efforts have evolved between the lead-up to its annexation of Crimea and now.

This time, the Kremlin appears to be driving anti-Ukraine narratives with top officials making bellicose public statements, said Jankowicz, author of How To Lose the Information War: Russia, Fake News, and the Future of Conflict.


“The officials are setting the tone for the state media and they’re just running with it,” she said.

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So-called “troll farms” that post fake comments are less influential in part because social media companies have got better at stopping them, she said.


Russian efforts on social media often play on existing doubts in Ukrainian society about whether the US will support Ukraine in a conflict and whether the West can be trusted, she said.

US intelligence community has taken note of a build-up on social media by Russian influencers justifying intervention by emphasising deteriorating human rights in Ukraine, suggesting an increased militancy of Ukrainian leaders and blaming the West for escalating tensions.

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

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov speaks during his annual news conference in Moscow on Friday. Photo: Reuters

The Russians, while maintaining they do not plan to invade Ukraine, are demanding that the US and Nato provide written guarantees that the alliance will not expand eastward.

The US has called such demands non-starters but said that it is 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.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned on Friday that Moscow would not wait indefinitely for the Western response, saying he expects the US and Nato to provide a written answer next week.

Lavrov described Moscow’s demands for binding guarantees that Nato will not embrace Ukraine or any other former Soviet nations, or station its forces and weapons there as essential for the progress of diplomatic efforts to defuse soaring tensions over Ukraine.

He argued that Nato’s deployments and drills near Russia’s borders pose a security challenge that must be addressed immediately.

“We have run out of patience,” Lavrov said at a news conference. “The West has been driven by hubris and has exacerbated tensions in violation of its obligations and common sense.”