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Russia could invade Ukraine within next month: U.S. intelligence

A BMP-2 amphibious infantry fighting vehicle during field firing practice ahead of the 78th birthday of the guards tank army of the Western Military District at the Golovenki range outside Moscow.

Sergei Bobylev | TASS | Getty Images

WASHINGTON – Intelligence agencies monitoring Russian cyber operations against Ukraine believe Russia’s pattern of activity could signal a ground invasion of Ukraine within the next 30 days, the White House said Friday.

The new timeline is the latest sign of how imminent the Biden administration believes a Russian attack against Ukraine could be, and how urgent its effort to negotiate a peaceful settlement has become.

The U.S. has pledged to respond to any military incursion with unprecedented economic sanctions on members of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. But this could trigger retaliatory moves by Moscow against the West – up to and including cuts in the energy that flows from Russia to the rest of the world. Russia is the largest supplier of oil, natural gas and coal to Europe.

Speaking to reporters at the White House on Friday, press secretary Jen Psaki said analysts had first noticed a sharp uptick in December of coordinated social media misinformation via Russian-backed channels aimed at destabilizing the Ukrainian government.

“The Russian military plans to begin these activities several weeks before a military invasion, which could begin between mid-January and mid-February,” Psaki said.

The revelation came just hours after Russian cyber operatives had disabled Ukraine’s main government agency websites, replacing the agency homepages with a message to all Ukrainians that read, in part: “Be afraid and expect the worst. This is for your past, present and future.”

The threat facing Ukraine is far more serious than a mere cyberattack. More than 200,000 Russian troops are currently positioned along the country’s border with Ukraine. Based on the troop movements, U.S. military analysts see the potential for numerous different invasion routes.

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American intelligence agencies also believe Russia has already “prepositioned a group of operatives to conduct a false flag operation in Eastern Ukraine,” Psaki said. “The operatives are trained in urban warfare and in using explosives to carry out acts of sabotage against Russia’s own proxy forces.”

These Russian operatives are part of a broader effort by Moscow that is “laying the groundwork to have the option of fabricating a pretext for invasion” of Ukraine, Psaki said at her daily briefing.

As part of this false narrative, Psaki said Russian proxies on social media are already accusing Ukraine of readying an imminent attack against Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine.

That way, if the prepositioned Russian operatives were to carry out a stealth attack on Russian-backed forces in Ukraine, Moscow could point to its prior accusation and blame the Ukrainians for the attack.

With a population of 44 million and a democratically elected government, post Cold-War Ukraine is a close ally of the United States and a perennial target for Moscow.

Fruitless negotiations

Moscow defiant

— CNBC’s Patti Domm contributed to this story.

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