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U.S. intel suggests Russia is preparing a 'false-flag' operation as pretext for Ukraine invasion

A Russian invasion of Ukraine "may result in widespread human rights violations and war crimes," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said.
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The U.S. has information that the Russian government is planning a "false-flag" operation to rationalize an invasion of Ukraine, a government official said Friday.

"We have information that indicates Russia has already pre-positioned a group of operatives to conduct a false-flag operation in eastern Ukraine. The operatives are trained in urban warfare and in using explosives to carry out acts of sabotage against Russia’s own proxy-forces," the official said, confirming a CNN report.

"Our information 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 divisions in Ukraine," the official said. "For example, Russian officials and influence actors are emphasizing narratives about the deterioration of human rights in Ukraine and the increased militancy of Ukrainian leaders."

It's rare for the U.S. government to publicly release intelligence information in real time, especially about a high-value target like Russia, a longtime U.S. adversary. The unusual disclosure came as the Biden administration has sought to pre-empt Russian tactics, which during previous conflicts have obscured the facts and made it more difficult for the U.S. and its allies to hold Moscow accountable.

For weeks, as concerns have grown about a potential Russian invasion, U.S. national security officials have warned publicly that Russia was likely to spread misinformation about ongoing diplomatic efforts to muddy the waters and to try to drive a wedge between the U.S. and its NATO and European allies.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Friday at her daily briefing that the intelligence shows Russia "is laying the groundwork to have the option of fabricating a pretext for invasion."

Psaki added that Russians appear to be following the same playbook they used when they took control of Crimea.

"We saw this before, leading up to 2014, just to note — through sabotage activities and information operations, by accusing Ukraine of preparing an imminent attack against Russian forces," Psaki said. She added that an invasion by Russia now "may result in widespread human rights violations and war crimes should diplomacy fail to meet their objectives."

The comments came hours after Ukraine was hit by a massive cyberattack warning its citizens to “expect the worst.” Ukraine’s foreign ministry spokesperson told Reuters it was too early to say who could be behind the attack, but that Russia had been behind similar strikes in the past.

Psaki said President Joe Biden has been briefed on the attack, and that the U.S. has "offered our support as Ukraine investigates the impact and recovers from the incidents.”

Russia has massed more than 100,000 troops on its neighbor’s frontier. The Russian government has denied it has plans to attack Ukraine, but aired footage of more forces deploying to the area on Friday. Russian officials met with their U.S., European and NATO counterparts over the past week as they sought defuse tensions between the two countries. But in the aftermath of those talks, the Biden administration has said it believes a Russian incursion into Ukraine remains a real possibility.

“The drumbeat of war is sounding loud,” a senior U.S. diplomat said.

The Biden administration is considering arming Ukrainian insurgents, who would in essence fight a guerrilla war against Russian forces, if Russia invades Ukraine, a senior U.S. official and a former U.S. official confirmed to NBC News. Such a move would be in addition to the administration's ongoing commitment to providing arms to Ukraine's government.

Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland said this week at a State Department briefing that "we have this year alone supplied Ukraine with some $450 million of defensive lethal support in all kinds of categories."

Andriy Yermak, chief of staff to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, said at a virtual briefing organized by the think tank the Atlantic Council that they are still hoping to reach a diplomatic resolution. He said Zelenskyy had spoken to Biden about possible trilateral talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“We’re still waiting for a reaction on this I think from the Russian side,” Yermak said. "But our American partners take our proposal with some interest."

A White House official told NBC News that the Biden administration is "consulting with allies and partners, including Ukraine, to determine the next steps, and we are in communication with the Russians."

"We believe diplomacy is the best path forward," the official said, and "are prepared to continue to engage in good faith to advance security and stability in the Euro-Atlantic. But if Russia chooses a different path and further invades Ukraine, we are equally prepared to impose severe costs on Russia, along with our allies and partners."

National security adviser Jake Sullivan said at a White House press briefing Thursday that the intelligence community had information pointing to a Russian false flag operation in Ukraine, but had "not made an assessment that the Russians have definitively decided to take a military course of action." He added that that it was “certainly the case that the threat of military invasion is high.”