Officials: Moscow has already positioned saboteurs in Ukraine
Allegation arrives on day Ukraine hit by ‘massive’ cyber-attack.
Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin on Friday. Moscow has persistently portrayed the crisis as a military threat from Ukraine against Russia.
The US has alleged Russia has already positioned saboteurs in Ukraine to carry out a “false flag” operation to use as a pretext for a Russian attack, which Washington says could begin in the coming month.
The allegations came on the same day as a large-scale cyber-attack on Ukrainian government websites, and amid new reports of Russian military hardware on the move from the far east heading westwards.
They follow a week of failed diplomacy with abortive talks in Geneva, Brussels and Vienna, which did nothing to defuse the crisis provoked by Russia’s massing of more than 100,000 troops near Ukraine’s borders. Moscow has persistently portrayed the crisis as a military threat from Ukraine against Russia, without providing any evidence.
“We have information that indicates Russia has already pre-positioned a group of operatives to conduct a false flag operation in eastern Ukraine,” Jen Psaki, the White House spokeswoman, said. “The operatives are trained in urban warfare and using explosives to carry out acts of sabotage against Russia’s own proxy forces.”
The allegation was echoed by the Pentagon spokesman, John Kirby, who said that Russia was preparing “an operation designed to look like an attack on … Russian-speaking people in Ukraine, again as an excuse to go in.”
A US official claimed that social media disinformation had been stepped up well in advance, saying: “The Russian military plans to begin these activities several weeks before a military invasion, which could begin between mid-January and mid-February.”
Russian-language posts on social media accusing Ukraine and its western backers of planning attacks appeared at the rate of 3,500 a day in December, a 200% increase from the daily average in November, the official said.
Ukraine has been repeatedly targeted by cyber-attackers since 2014.
Ukraine hit by ‘massive’ cyber-attack on government websites
Ukrainian officials had claimed that the provocation could take the form of a violent incident at the Russian embassy or consulate, which Moscow could then blame on far-right Ukrainian extremists.
The presidential spokesman in Moscow, Dmitry Peskov, rejected the claims as “unfounded and completely unconfirmed”
On the same day as the allegations, Ukraine was hit by a “massive” cyber-attack, with the websites of several government departments including the ministry of foreign affairs and the education ministry knocked out.
The hackers left a message on the foreign ministry website, according to reports. It said: “Ukrainians! … All information about you has become public. Be afraid and expect worse. It’s your past, present and future.”
Andriy Yermak, the head of the presidential office in Kyiv said, “practically 90%” of the affected websites were back online by mid-afternoon.
“The most strategic infrastructure in Ukraine was not be destroyed by this attack. This is a very [well] protected,” Yermak told a meeting of the Atlantic Council thinktank from Kyiv. He said Ukraine was working with the US and the UK to confirm who was behind the assault.
Earlier in the day, Ukraine’s information ministry said “the first data suggest that the attack was carried out by the Russian Federation”. The White House, however, could not immediately confirm that.
“We don’t have an attribution at this time,” a US official told reporters. “While we continue to assess the impact with the Ukrainians, it seems limited so far, with websites coming back online. We will consult with allies and partners including Ukraine.”
In a message to the Guardian, the foreign ministry’s spokesperson, Oleg Nikolenko, said: “As a result of a massive cyber-attack, the website of the ministry of foreign affairs and other government agencies are temporarily down.”
He added: “Our specialists have already started restoring the work of IT systems and the cyber-police has opened an investigation.”
Nato’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, and Josep Borrell, the EU’s top diplomat, condemned the attacks. Borrell said the EU’s political and security committee and cyber units would meet to decide how to respond and to support Kyiv.
“We are going to mobilise all our resources to help Ukraine to tackle this. Sadly, we knew it could happen,” he said. He added: “It’s difficult to say [who is behind it]. I can’t blame anybody as I have no proof. But we can imagine.”