A BMP-2 amphibious infantry fighting vehicle conducts field shooting practice ahead of the 78th birthday of the Guards Tank Unit of the Western Military District at the Golovinki shooting range outside Moscow.
Sergey Bobilev | TASS | Getty Images
WASHINGTON — The White House said on Friday that intelligence agencies monitoring Russian cyber operations against Ukraine believe patterns of Russian activity could herald a ground invasion of Ukraine within the next 30 days.
The new timeline is the latest sign of how imminent the Biden administration believes a possible Russian attack on Ukraine has become, and how urgent its efforts to negotiate a peaceful solution have become.
The United States has pledged to impose unprecedented economic sanctions on members of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle in response to any military incursion. But it could trigger Moscow’s retaliation against the West — including cutting energy flows from Russia to the rest of the world. Russia is Europe’s largest supplier of oil, gas and coal.
Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters at the White House on Friday that analysts first noticed a sharp rise in coordinated social media misinformation through Russian-backed channels in December aimed at destabilizing the Ukrainian government.
“The Russian military plans to start these activities a few weeks before the military invasion, which could start between mid-January and mid-February,” Psaki said.
The news came just hours after Russian cyber agents shut down the website of the main Ukrainian government agency, and the agency’s home page was replaced with a message to all Ukrainians, in part: “Fear and expect the worst. It’s for you. Past, present and future.”
The threat Ukraine faces is far more serious than a mere cyberattack. Currently, more than 200,000 Russian troops are stationed along the country’s border with Ukraine. Based on troop movements, U.S. military analysts see potential in many different routes of invasion.
U.S. intelligence agencies also believe that Russia has “pre-arranged a team of operatives to conduct false flag operations in eastern Ukraine,” Psaki said. “These agents are trained in urban warfare and the use of explosives to sabotage Russia’s own proxies.”
In her daily briefing, Psaki said the Russian agents were part of a broader effort by Moscow that was “laying the groundwork for choosing to create a pretext for invading Ukraine.”
As part of this false narrative, Psaki said Russian proxies on social media were already accusing Ukraine of preparing for an imminent attack on Russian forces in eastern Ukraine.
That way, if pre-deployed Russian operatives were to carry out a stealth attack on Russian-backed forces in Ukraine, Moscow could point to its previous allegations and blame the attack on the Ukrainians.
Post-Cold War Ukraine, with a population of 44 million and an elected government, is a close ally of the United States and a long-term target of Moscow.
Psaki’s latest news follows Multiple high-stakes discussions between U.S. and European officials and their Russian counterparts.
For months, Kiev has been warning U.S. and European allies that Russian troops are building up on its eastern border. That buildup sparked Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea on the Black Sea peninsula, which sparked an international uproar and sparked a slew of sanctions against Moscow.
The Crimea seizure also removed Russia from the “Group of Eight,” or Group of Eight, which refers to eight major global economies.
The Biden administration has repeatedly warned in recent weeks that the U.S. is ready to take greater economic countermeasures if Moscow further invades Ukraine.
“We are ready and aligned with our partners and allies to impose these heavy costs,” Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said Monday.
Sherman, who began talks with her Russian counterparts in Geneva on Monday, told reporters on a conference call that the sanctions were aimed at targeting Russia’s major financial institutions and export controls in key industries.
The Biden administration is coordinating measures with NATO allies, the European Council and members of the Group of Seven, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Newland said on Tuesday.
Ukraine has been seeking to join NATO since 2002, Article 5 of the Group A declared attack on one member state is considered an attack on all member states.
Russian officials told a news conference this week that there is an “absolute obligation to ensure that Ukraine never, never, never becomes a NATO member”.
“We need ironclad, waterproof, bulletproof, legally binding guarantees. Not guarantees, not guarantees, but guarantees,” said Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov.
The Russian president has previously insisted that Moscow was not prepared to invade its former Soviet neighbor despite deploying thousands of soldiers along the Ukrainian border. Putin also defended the right to deploy troops on Russia’s borders and accused NATO of escalating tensions by building troops in Russia’s neighbors.
Russia has described NATO’s eastward expansion as a “red line” posing a security threat to Moscow.
leading the recent callOn Dec. 30, Biden reiterated his concerns and threatened again that his administration would “respond decisively” with allies and partners if Russia invaded Ukraine.
–CNBC’s Patti Domm contributed to this story.