The United States has shared concerns that Russia may be bracing for the possibility of another military assault to justify an invasion of Ukraine, a government official said.
Ukrainian government websites received a warning today “to be afraid and expect the worst”.
Russia has denied any involvement, although it has now assembled more than 100,000 troops on its neighbor’s borders and released pictures of more of its forces on the move earlier in the day.
A US government official has now said there are concerns “Russia has already pre-positioned a group of operatives to carry out a false flag operation in eastern Ukraine.”
The official said: “Agents are trained in urban warfare and the use of explosives to carry out acts of sabotage against Russia’s own proxy forces.
“Our information also indicates that Russian influencers are already beginning to fabricate Ukrainian provocations in state and social media to justify Russian intervention and sow division in Ukraine.
“For example, Russian officials and influential actors are emphasizing stories about deteriorating human rights in Ukraine and increased activism by Ukrainian leaders.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters during her daily briefing that intelligence shows Russia is “laying the groundwork for an opportunity to fabricate a pretext for invasion.”
Ms Psaki added that the Russians appear to be following the same methods they used when they took over Crimea in 2014.
She said: “We have seen this before, until 2014, just to note – through sabotage activities and information operations, accusing Ukraine of planning an imminent attack on Russian forces.”
She added that an invasion by Russia now “could result in widespread human rights abuses and war crimes if diplomacy fails to achieve its goals.”
The comments came hours after Ukraine was hit by a massive cyberattack.
Ukraine’s foreign ministry spokesman said it was too early to say who might be behind the attack, but that Russia had been behind similar strikes in the past.
Ms Psaki added that President Joe Biden had been briefed on the attack and that the United States had “offered its support as Ukraine investigates the impact and recovers from the incidents”.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed the reports as based on “unsubstantiated” information, TASS news agency reported.