The US has accused Russia of planning covert operations, including sabotage, in eastern Ukraine to create a “pretext for invasion”, after diplomatic efforts to defuse the crisis faltered and government websites were hit by a major cyber attack.
The White House said it had information indicating that Russia had “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,” said Jen Psaki, White House press secretary.
The claims and the cyber attack on Ukraine government websites follows tense negotiations this week between the US, Nato and western allies and Russia. The US and Nato hoped the talks would deter Russian president Vladimir Putin from invading Ukraine. Moscow annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in 2014.
However, senior Russian officials this week dismissed the rounds of talks with Nato and the US, calling them a “dead end”.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov denied that Moscow was preparing to create a pretext for invasion of eastern Ukraine, saying western media reports were based on “unfounded” information, Tass news agency said.
So-called false-flag operations are designed to hide the true source of a provocative act. Psaki said such “sabotage activities” and “information operations” had the aim of accusing “Ukraine of preparing an imminent attack against Russian forces”.
Ukraine’s army defence intelligence service also warned that Russian special services were “preparing provocations” against Russia’s own military to justify military aggression against its neighbour.
The American allegations came as the Ukrainian government struggled to combat what said was a “massive cyber attack”, which took down about 70 government websites. Targets included the ministerial cabinet, a number of ministries, the state treasury and the Diia electronic public services platform, where vaccination certificates and electronic passports are stored.
“Ukrainians! All your personal data has been uploaded to the public network,” read a message posted on the foreign ministry’s website. “All information about you has become public, fear and expect the worst.”
Ukraine’s Centre for Strategic Communications, a government agency set up to counter Russia’s aggression, accused Moscow of being behind the cyber attacks while noting that investigators had yet to formally draw such a conclusion.
“This is not the first or even the second time that Ukrainian internet resources have been attacked since the beginning of Russia’s military aggression,” the agency said. Ukrainian officials recently warned that cyber attacks and other efforts to destabilise the country would be a prelude to further aggression.
Comments at the end of the hackers’ message referred to Ukrainian insurgent fighters during the second world war and appeared to chastise Ukraine for ethnic clashes and atrocities. Poland and Ukraine have accused each other of committing atrocities during the period in the region.
Julianne Smith, the US ambassador to Nato, said proof of a Russian cyber attack would “certainly” be classed as an example of renewed aggression against Ukraine, which could trigger western sanctions against Moscow.
“We are monitoring everything that Russia is going to be doing towards Ukraine,” she said.
Jens Stoltenberg, Nato’s secretary-general, said he “strongly” condemned the cyber attacks.
Josep Borrell, Brussels’ top diplomat, said the EU’s political and security committee and cyber units would discuss how to help Kyiv.
“We are going to mobilise all our resources to help Ukraine to tackle this cyber attack. Sadly, we knew it could happen,” Borrell said at an EU foreign ministers’ meeting in France.