Amid escalating tensions between Moscow, Kiev and Washington, US officials have accused Russia of preparing sabotage and disinformation operations to justify an eventual invasion of Ukraine.
The statement, made this Friday (14) to the Reuters news agency on condition of anonymity by a member of the US government, comes after several Ukrainian government websites were the target of a hacker attack. The pages of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Education were offline.
Before the chancellery’s website was taken down, the plaintiffs posted a threat in Ukrainian, Russian and Polish. “Ukrainians, be afraid and prepare for the worst. All your personal data has been made public,” read the message, which was accompanied by various logos, including a crossed-out Ukrainian flag. So far, no group has claimed responsibility for the attack.
In recent years, Ukraine has been the target of attacks of the type attributed to Russia, such as one launched in 2017 against several important infrastructures in the country, and another, in 2015, against its electricity grid. Friday’s cyber action also comes in the wake of the failure of a week of negotiations between the US, its European allies and Russia. There were three meetings, in different instances, and all ended without progress in the search for trying to lower the temperature of the crisis generated with the sending of Russian soldiers to the border with Ukraine.
Western powers accuse President Vladimir Putin of planning an invasion of the neighboring country after Moscow deployed tanks, artillery and more than 100,000 troops to the country’s western border in recent weeks. NATO, the Western military alliance, sees the move as preparation for military action.
On Friday, a high-level US official said the US was concerned that Russia could fabricate pretexts for the invasion, with sabotage and disinformation operations. Then, in theory, Moscow would falsely accuse Ukraine of preparing an attack against Kremlin forces.
By this logic, the Russians’ idea would be to launch this offensive weeks before an actual invasion, which could happen until mid-February, according to the US government’s calculations.
Also according to what this official told Reuters, Washington already has information that Russia has put a group to carry out the so-called “false flag operation”, using explosives against Moscow’s own forces, in order to justify a military counteroffensive. In addition, also according to the White House member, Russian influencers would already be manufacturing and spreading rumors to endorse an intervention.
Ukraine’s military intelligence also accused Putin of preparing provocations against Russian troops stationed in a breakaway region in neighboring Moldova, which could be another pretext for invading the country on a new western front. Russia reacted after the American press published suspicions of the disinformation operation, unsurprisingly saying the accusation was unfounded.
Moscow has denied having plans to attack Ukraine, but says it may take “military-technical action” if the Americans do not heed its demands to block Kiev from joining NATO. The Kremlin fears that the Western military alliance is moving even closer to its backyard — currently, the group is already home to the Baltic states (Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia), former republics of the Soviet Union, among other Soviet-aligned countries.
A possible invasion could also be justified on ethnic grounds. Last year, Putin published an article of more than 40,000 characters on the Kremlin’s official website in which he reviewed the entire history of Russia, in order, according to him, to prove the argument that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people”.
In Ukraine, however, the conception is different: a survey released in 2017 – three years after the annexation of Crimea by the Russians – by the Ukrainian think tank Razumkov Center found that 92% of the country’s citizens consider themselves ethnically Ukrainian; only 6% said they were Russians. These numbers have been rising every year: in the 2001 census, 78.8% of citizens considered themselves to be Ukrainians, and in 2015 it was 86%.
The younger the respondents, the higher the percentage of those who consider themselves Ukrainian. In 2017, the rate reached 96% among young people aged 18 to 22, while among those over 60, conception was no more than 90%.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Friday he hoped security talks with the United States would resume, but added that it would depend on Washington’s response to Moscow’s proposals. “We categorically will not accept the presence of NATO on our borders, especially given the current directions of the Ukrainian government,” he said.
Asked what he meant by the threat of “military-technical action” if negotiations fail, Lavrov replied: “Measures to deploy military equipment, that’s obvious.” He added: “When we make decisions with military equipment, we understand what we mean and what we are preparing for.”
On the other hand, the Ukrainian government announced that President Volodymyr Zelensky proposed a meeting with his American and Russian counterparts, which has not yet been set. His office stressed that the country’s “life and death” are at stake. Unpopular, the president has sought to strengthen himself with the speech of defense of the homeland, but the precarious situation in Donbass (the east of the country) and the flexing of Russian military muscles put pressure on him.
Also this Friday, the Russian research center Levada published on its website a survey that points out that a possible world war frightens 56% of Russians, being second only to the fear of “losing a loved one”, cited by 82% of respondents. The number, however, is lower than that recorded in March last year, when 62% of the population feared a global conflict.
The Reuters agency also reported that the US government has been consulting several energy multinationals to prepare a contingency plan for the supply of natural gas to Europe. The information was confirmed by sources at the companies and Biden management who requested anonymity.
The action is linked to fears that a conflict between Russia and Ukraine could affect Moscow’s relations with the European Union and, as a consequence, the supply of the product. Today, about 40% of the gas used by Europeans comes from Russia. The agency did not confirm which companies had been contacted, but reported that they had informed the US that there was little room for maneuver in this sector today.
Ukraine investigates hacking attack on government systems
Ukrainian authorities are investigating a massive cyberattack that hit about 70 websites of government agencies on Friday (14), including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Although they avoided directly accusing Moscow, the Ukrainians made it clear that there are indications that the attack was an action led by the neighboring country’s secret services.
Russia has not officially commented on the episode, as expected, but has denied, in other episodes, sponsoring hacking attacks. One of the hypotheses considered by the West as a harbinger of a possible Moscow military offensive in its neighbor is that of a major hacking action against strategic infrastructure to disorganize the authorities.
NATO responded by announcing that it will sign a new agreement with Kiev to strengthen military cooperation in the area of cyber defense. The body’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, said in a statement that experts were already working with Ukrainian authorities to respond to the attack.
Ukrainian authorities have denied any personal data leakage or serious damage to systems. According to the country’s secret services, “the content of the sites has not changed”. “Much of the affected government resources have been restored, and the others will be accessible again soon,” they said, adding that some pages were voluntarily disabled “to prevent the spread of attacks.”
Top EU diplomat Josep Borrell condemned the attack and said the EU’s political and security committee and cyber units would meet to see how to help Kiev. “I can’t blame anyone as I have no proof, but we can imagine,” he said.
On another front, initially unrelated to the attack on Ukrainian services, Russia this Friday dismantled the criminal group REvil, blamed for cyberattacks against companies operating on American soil. One of the prisoners would be linked to a lawsuit, in May 2021, against Colonial Pipeline that affected the fuel supply in the US.
According to the Russian intelligence service, 14 people were arrested and the equivalent of R$37.5 million was seized, in rubles, dollars and euros. Detainees face up to seven years in prison.