Russian Agents in Ukraine Are Trying to Create a Pretext for Invasion, Pentagon Says
“When there isn't an actual crisis to suit their needs, they'll make one up,” Kirby said
Russian agents in Ukraine are working on a false-flag operation to create a pretext that Moscow might use to invade the neighboring country, a Pentagon spokesman said Friday.
It could take the form of an attack on Russia or Russian-speaking people in Ukraine, John Kirby told reporters.
Kirby said the Pentagon has “indications that Russian influence actors are already starting...to fabricate Ukrainian provocations in both state and social media, to again try to justify in advance some sort of pretext for incursion.”
He spoke just days after U.S. and Russian officials met to discuss Moscow’s security demands and the 100,000 troops and other forces that Russia has moved toward Ukraine. The talks made little discernible progress.
Kirby called the operation part of a playbook that Russia has drawn upon in the past, as when it invaded Ukraine in 2014 and illegally annexed Crimea. In December, White House officials said Moscow had “stepped up efforts” to portray the United States and Ukraine as instigators in the growing tensions.
“When there isn't an actual crisis to suit their needs, they'll make one up. And so we're watching for that,” he said.
Kirby said the operatives could be a blend of personnel from the military, intelligence, and security services, making it unclear to whom they report. He said past experience suggests that they were unlikely to be operating without the knowledge and approval of senior government officials.
Kirby declined to say more about the group, its location, or its capabilities.
Several media outlets cite an unnamed U.S. official as saying they are in eastern Ukraine. They are also trained in urban warfare and in using explosives for sabotage.
Earlier on Friday, a cyber attack took down several Ukrainian government websites, replacing them with messages telling visitors that their personal data was being uploaded and instructing them to be afraid. Kirby said it was too early to say whether this attack was the work of Russian agents or whether it is connected to a false flag operation. But he said it resembled previous Russian attacks.
Kirby said the Biden administration had decided to reveal its knowledge of the operatives’ existence to inform the American public and the world.
“To know that we know what's in this playbook and how it would potentially play out in Russian state and social media. So that if it does happen, it can be easily identified for what it is, which is a fabrication and a pretext,” he said.
The U.S. military currently has a few hundred troops in Ukraine, Kirby said. Fewer than 200 Florida National Guardsman are there on a rotational advise-and-assist mission. Some U.S. special forces are also training and advising Ukrainian units.
He declined to say what the Pentagon would do if Russia invaded Ukraine with these troops still on the ground.
The Biden administration believes there is still time for diplomacy with Russia to prevent an invasion of Ukraine.
“We do not believe that Mr. [Vladimir] Putin has made a final decision yet. So as long as that's the case, yes, we still believe there's time and space for diplomacy and we obviously want that to prevail,” Kirby said. “But if it doesn't, we're also, as an administration, ready to continue to look at options on the back end of that.”