U.S. intelligence officials have determined a Russian effort is underway to create a pretext for its troops to invade Ukraine, the White House said Friday.
She said Russia is also laying the groundwork through a social media disinformation campaign that frames Ukraine as an aggressor that has been preparing an imminent attack against Russian-backed forces in eastern Ukraine.
Her comments came as officials at the Pentagon also said Russia has sent undercover operatives into Ukraine to set the stage for an invasion similar to that which led up to Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
The goal would be to make the attacks appear as if they were carried out by Ukrainian forces, in order to create an impetus for Russian military troops to then enter Ukraine and defend the Russian-speaking population.
“They’ve already started fabricating Ukrainian provocations in both state and social media to try to justify in advance some sort of pretext for an incursion,” Mr. Kirby said.
The statements about potential false flag operations followed a large-scale cyberattack Friday against several Ukrainian government websites. It was not immediately clear who carried out the cyberattack, although U.S. intelligence has previously blamed such actions on Moscow.
Russian officials have denied allegations that Moscow is setting the stage for an invasion. A Kremlin spokesman told Agence France-Presse on Friday that the allegation is unfounded.
Mr. Kirby said the operatives now in Ukraine are likely a mix of military troops, intelligence agents, and possibly mercenary organizations, such as the paramilitary Wagner Group, which has connections to the Russian government.
“We’ve seen this kind of thing before out of Russia,” the Pentagon spokesman said. “When there isn’t an actual crisis to suit their needs, they’ll make one up. So we’re watching for that.”
The Pentagon has not yet confirmed whether Friday’s cyberattack on Ukrainian agencies was connected to a future Russian invasion. “It’s too soon to say if it’s part and parcel of a ‘false flag’ operation,” Mr. Kirby said. “We’re not at the point of attribution right now.”
About 200 U.S. Army troops with the Florida National Guard are in Ukraine on an “advise and assist” mission to Ukraine’s military. Mr. Kirby wouldn’t say whether they would be pulled out in the event of a Russian invasion.
“Force protection remains paramount in our minds,” he said. “We will make all the appropriate and proper decisions to make sure our people are safe.”
At the Pentagon, Mr. Kirby said it is not too late for Moscow to step back from the edge. “We do not believe Mr. Putin has made a final decision yet,” he said. “As long as that’s the case, we still believe there’s time and space for diplomacy.”
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.