Russia Planning Provocation in Ukraine as Pretext for War

Warnings from U.S. officials come amid a cyberattack on Ukrainian government websites.

By , , and
A Ukrainian military serviceman waits at his position on the frontline with Russia-backed separatists.
A Ukrainian military serviceman waits at his position on the frontline with Russia-backed separatists.
A Ukrainian military serviceman waits at his position on the frontline with Russia-backed separatists near Luganske village, in the Donetsk region, on Jan. 11. ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP via Getty Images

Putin’s War

Officials in Washington are sounding the alarm over intelligence that suggests Russia may be planning a provocation in Ukraine as a pretext for war. 

“Russia is laying the groundwork to have the option of fabricating a pretext for invasion, including through sabotage activities and information operations, by accusing Ukraine of preparing an imminent attack against Russian forces in eastern Ukraine,” said a U.S. official who requested anonymity. 

The official warned that Russia has already pre-positioned a group of operatives trained in urban combat and explosives to potentially launch an attack on Russian-backed proxy forces in eastern Ukraine to justify a renewed assault on the country. Russia has armed and given military support to separatists fighting in the Donbass region since 2014.

Officials in Washington are sounding the alarm over intelligence that suggests Russia may be planning a provocation in Ukraine as a pretext for war. 

“Russia is laying the groundwork to have the option of fabricating a pretext for invasion, including through sabotage activities and information operations, by accusing Ukraine of preparing an imminent attack against Russian forces in eastern Ukraine,” said a U.S. official who requested anonymity. 

The official warned that Russia has already pre-positioned a group of operatives trained in urban combat and explosives to potentially launch an attack on Russian-backed proxy forces in eastern Ukraine to justify a renewed assault on the country. Russia has armed and given military support to separatists fighting in the Donbass region since 2014.

“The Russian military plans to begin these activities several weeks before a military invasion, which could begin between mid-January and mid-February. We saw this playbook in 2014 with Crimea,” the official said. U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan first hinted on Thursday in a press briefing that the Biden administration had seen Russia preparing disinformation to provide a pretext to further the invasion of Ukraine. 

The official also noted that Russian state media and social media accounts were increasingly spreading disinformation to build the case for war, blaming the West for escalating tensions, alleging human rights abuses in Ukraine, and trying to rally Russian domestic support for military action. “​​Russian-language content on social media covering all three of these narratives increased to an average of nearly 3,500 posts per day, a 200 percent increase from the daily average in November,” the official said. Ukraine’s defense intelligence ministry has also warned that Russia could prepare provocations against its own troops in order to frame Kyiv. 

The warnings come as a sweeping cyberattack took several Ukrainian government websites offline for a period on Friday. “All information about you has become public. Be afraid, and expect the worst,” said a message posted on the Ukrainian foreign ministry’s website by hackers. Most websites were back online within hours, and no personal data was obtained, according to Ukrainian officials. Andriy Yermak, the head of the Ukrainian presidential administration, said on Friday in an event with the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank, that no critical infrastructure was affected by the attack. 

U.S. President Joe Biden was briefed on the digital attacks on Friday, and the United States has offered its support, but officials in Kyiv and Washington have not yet formally attributed responsibility for the attack. Amid the Russian military buildup near the border with Ukraine, experts have repeatedly warned that Moscow may use cyberattacks as a distraction or to hobble Kyiv’s ability to respond to an invasion. The Ukrainian information ministry said on Friday that preliminary data from the hack suggested that Russia was responsible.

Cybersecurity experts have noticed an uptick of activity against Ukrainian targets in recent weeks, fearing an effort to “prepare the battlefield” for a possible invasion. 

Friday’s activities sent Western officials into high gear to condemn Russia’s behavior. In a statement, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said NATO and Ukraine would sign a deal in the coming days that would give Kyiv access to the alliance’s malware information-sharing platform, which could help digital incident investigators more readily figure out the culprits behind major hacks. Stoltenberg stopped short of naming Russia as the culprit. 

The move also came as the Biden administration said it had begun putting the finishing touches on a package of multilateral sanctions targeting Moscow if it furthers its invasion into Ukraine. Speaking to reporters on Friday, U.S. Ambassador to NATO Julianne Smith told reporters that Russian cyberattacks could “certainly” trigger more sanctions. Foreign Policy previously reported that the United States was weighing cutting off the Kremlin from the SWIFT global banking communications system in response to a renewed attack on Ukraine. In turn, Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned Washington that Russia would sever ties with the United States if it sanctioned the country over a further invasion of Ukraine. 

Ukrainian officials have called on the United States and its NATO allies to offer more support to Kyiv to deter Russia from an invasion, from tougher sanctions to increasing military aid and training. Senior Ukrainian officials endorsed a U.S. sanctions bill, led by Sen. Ted Cruz, on a controversial Russian gas pipeline project, but the bill failed to muster enough votes to pass in the Senate on Thursday. 

Yermak argued that Western sanctions alone weren’t enough to halt a Russian offensive: “We need the help before something happens. … It’s not time now to discuss what is right, sanctions, what is not. I think still we have around our border more than 100,000 Russian soldiers.” 

U.S. and European officials met with their Russian counterparts this week in high-level negotiations in Geneva and Brussels that ended in an impasse and failed to defuse the crisis. Yermak said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has also proposed a “trilateral meeting” by videoconference with Biden, Putin, and himself to discuss diplomatic options to avert a military escalation. 

Russia pushed the United States to halt admitting new members to NATO, portraying Ukraine joining NATO as a red line for the Kremlin. The United States and other NATO allies unanimously rejected the proposal, saying it was up to its allies and aspirant members and Russia would not get a veto on NATO enlargement—though several U.S. and NATO officials stressed that Ukraine was not on the path to join NATO anytime soon. 

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has demanded that the United States provide a written answer to Russian security demands by next week.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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