US accuses Russia of planning ‘false flag operation’ in eastern Ukraine

The US has accused Russia of planning a ‘false flag operation’ in eastern Ukraine as part of its effort to create a ‘pretext for invasion’ after diplomatic efforts to defuse the crisis failed and that government websites were hit by a “massive cyberattack”. ”.

A US official said on Friday: “We have information indicating that Russia has already pre-positioned a group of operatives to conduct a false flag operation in eastern Ukraine. Agents are trained in urban warfare and the use of explosives to carry out acts of sabotage against Russian proxy forces.

The official said such “sabotage activities” and “information operations” would serve to accuse “Ukraine of planning an imminent attack on Russian forces in eastern Ukraine”, adding that it could be a precursor to a military invasion beginning “between mid-January and mid-February”.

Earlier on Friday, Ukraine said it was the target of a “massive cyberattack” after around 70 government websites went out of business. The targets included the websites of the cabinet minister, ministries of foreign affairs, education, agriculture, emergency, energy, veterans and environment, as well as websites of the Public Treasury and the electronic public services platform Diia, where vaccination certificates and electronic passports are stored. .

“Ukrainians! All your personal data has been uploaded to the public network,” read a message temporarily posted on the Foreign Ministry website. “All data on your computer is being erased and will not be recoverable. All information about you has become public, fear and expect the worst.

Ukraine’s Center for Strategic Communications, a government agency created to counter Russian aggression, accused Moscow of being behind Friday’s cyberattacks while noting that official investigators have 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 start of the Russian military aggression. . . Some cyberattacks were so widespread that they became part of the world’s textbooks for cyber experts,” he said.

“We assume that the current one is connected with Russia’s recent defeat in negotiations on Ukraine’s future cooperation with NATO,” the agency added.

The attack follows tense negotiations this week between the United States, NATO and Western allies and Russia aimed at dissuading Russian President Vladimir Putin from opting for a deeper invasion of Ukraine. Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014.

Ukrainian officials recently warned that cyberattacks and other efforts to destabilize the country would be the prelude to further aggression.

The message left by the hackers, published in Ukrainian, Russian and Polish, added: “This is for your past, your present and your future. For Volyn, for the OUN UPA [Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists/Ukrainian Insurgent Army], for Halychyna, for Polissya and for historical lands.

Comments at the end of the post referred to Ukrainian insurgent fighters during World War II and appeared to chastise Ukraine for ethnic clashes and atrocities. Poland and Ukraine accuse each other of committing atrocities during the period in the region, which the countries have been jostling for centuries.

The hackers’ post also included defaced images of Ukraine’s national symbols, with a line running through the flag, coat of arms and a map of the country.

It was not immediately clear whether the hijackers were Polish or an attempt to incite division between Ukraine and Poland, one of Kiev’s strongest European allies in the face of Russian aggression.

Julianne Smith, the US ambassador to NATO, said the US would wait “to see what we find out today”. She added that evidence of a Russian cyberattack would “certainly” be classified as an example of renewed aggression against Ukraine, which could trigger Western sanctions against Moscow.

“We are watching everything Russia is going to do towards Ukraine,” she said. “We are mindful of some of the efforts to destabilize Ukraine from within. We all understand that there are a range of scenarios that could unfold with regard to what happens between Russia and Ukraine.

Jens Stoltenberg, NATO Secretary General, said he “strongly” condemned cyberattacks.

“NATO cyber experts in Brussels have exchanged information with their Ukrainian counterparts on current malicious cyber activities. Allied experts in the country are also supporting Ukrainian authorities on the ground,” he said.

Josep Borrell, a senior Brussels diplomat, said the EU’s political and security committee and cyber units will meet to see how to help Kyiv.

“We will mobilize all our resources to help Ukraine deal with this cyberattack. Unfortunately, we knew it could happen,” Borrell was quoted as saying by Reuters at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brest, western France. “It’s hard to say [who is behind it]. I can’t blame anyone as I have no proof, but we can imagine.

Ukraine’s state security service SBU said in a statement that “provocative messages were posted on the main page of these sites.”

“The content of the sites has not been modified and the leak of personal data, according to preliminary information, has not taken place,” the SBU added.

Oleksiy Danilov, Ukraine’s national security chief, told the Financial Times late last year that Ukraine had faced “continuous” Russian cyberattacks and other attempts to destabilize the country since Moscow had annexed Crimea and orchestrated a separatist proxy war in its eastern regions.

“Domestic destabilization is the immediate objective” of Russia before unleashing a possible deeper military incursion, he said, “first through cyber warfare, unleashing an energy crisis and an information war” .

Christi C. Elwood