The White House has accused Russia of sending saboteurs into eastern Ukraine in order to stage an incident that could provide a pretext for an invasion if Moscow's security demands are not met.
Spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters on January 14 that U.S. intelligence indicates that Russia "has prepositioned a group of operatives to conduct a false-flag operation in Ukraine. The operatives are trained in urban warfare and using explosives to conduct acts of sabotage.”
Our intelligence indicates that Russian influence actors are already starting to fabricate Ukrainian provocations in state and social media to justify a Russian intervention…"
The comments come after a week of high-stakes talks in Geneva, Brussels, and Vienna between U.S. and European officials with Russian diplomats who have essentially demanded a whole-scale reorganization of Europe’s security structure.
Russia has deployed nearly 100,000 troops to areas along Ukraine’s borders, prompting Western intelligence officials to warn that Moscow could be poised to conduct a new invasion of Ukraine.
"Our intelligence also indicates that Russian influence actors are already starting to fabricate Ukrainian provocations in state and social media to justify a Russian intervention and sow division in Ukraine,” Psaki said.
"The Russian military plans to begin these activities several weeks before a military invasion, which could begin between mid-January and mid-February," she added.
In Moscow, the U.S. intelligence assessment, which was earlier announced by unnamed U.S. officials, was derided.
"Until now, all these statements have been unfounded and have not been confirmed by anything," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted by state news agencies as saying.
As the United States and its Western allies have raised alarms over a massive Russian troop buildup near Ukraine, Russia has asked for written guarantees that the NATO military alliance will not admit former Soviet states such as Ukraine, among other demands.
Washington and its NATO allies held three rounds of talks with Russia in an attempt to defuse the situation, but while expressing openness to dialogue they have made clear that NATO's open-door policy for sovereign states is not negotiable.
Moscow, which has denied that it is planning to invade Ukraine, has said it could not wait indefinitely for a written Western response to its security demands.
“We have run out of patience,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said during his annual foreign policy conference on January 14. “We expect a written response from our Western colleagues on our proposals.
“We are convinced that, if there is a will to compromise, one can always find mutually acceptable solutions,” he said.
Earlier, a U.S. official who discussed the alleged “false-flag” operation said the U.S. intelligence was based on intercepted communications and observations of the movements of people.
Fighting between Ukrainian government forces and Russia-backed separatists who control parts of Ukraine's Donetsk and Luhansk regions has killed more than 13,200 people since April 2014.
Several Ukrainian government website were hit by hackers overnight, disabled and defaced by poorly worded cybergraffiti that made threats about Ukraine’s sovereignty. As of the evening of January 14, more than 12 hours after going down, the Foreign Ministry’s website and several others remained out of service.
Ukraine's Security Service said in a statement late on January 14 that its criminal investigation revealed some signs of the involvement of "hacker groups associated with the special services of the Russian Federation."
No group has taken responsibility for the attack, but Russian hackers linked to Moscow have repeatedly been blamed for cyberattacks on Ukrainian government websites and infrastructure in the past.
U.S. officials have threatened Russia with "massive and severe" sanctions and other measures if a new invasion of Ukraine does occur. Among the measures floated publicly include cutting Russia out of the SWIFT global system for bank messaging and major new export restrictions of technology to Russia.
New legislation making its way through the U.S. Senate threatens new restrictions on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Germany, as well as personal sanctions against President Vladimir Putin if an invasion occurs.