U.S. officials say they have evidence that Russia has developed a plan, approved at high levels in Moscow, to create a pretext for invading Ukraine by falsely pinning an attack on Ukrainian forces that could involve alleged casualties not only in eastern Ukraine but also in Russia.
The details of the plan have been declassified by U.S. intelligence and are expected to be revealed Thursday by the Biden administration, said four people familiar with the matter. The administration last month warned that the Russian government had sent operatives into eastern Ukraine, possibly in preparation for sabotage operations.
The alleged operation the United States plans to expose would involve broadcasting images of civilian casualties in eastern Ukraine — and potentially over the border in Russia — to a wide audience to drum up outrage against the Ukrainian government and create a pretext for invasion, two of the people said. It was unclear if the casualties would be real or faked, one U.S. official said.
The people familiar with the plan said it was formulated by Russian security services and is in the advanced stages of preparation.
The plan is related to but separate from other plots that have been disclosed by Western intelligence, including Russia’s placement of saboteurs in eastern Ukraine and another alleged scheme, revealed last month by the British government, to destabilize the Ukrainian government and install a pro-Russian figure at its head, officials said.
“They’re all related, of course, but this is a specific operation designed to create a potential pretext,” said one U.S. official, who, like others, did not provide the underlying evidence for the alleged plot but had been briefed on the matter. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence.
The allegation of advanced plotting by Russia comes as Washington and its allies try to expose Moscow’s planning for a potential invasion in real time, in the hope of complicating the Kremlin’s designs on its neighbor.
Russia has massed more than 100,000 troops around the borders of Ukraine, prompting the Biden administration to warn that Russian President Vladimir Putin could send his forces into Ukrainian territory at any moment. The White House has said the United States does not have an indication that Putin has made a decision to invade but says it has evidence of advanced planning by the Russian government.
The Kremlin has denied that Russian forces are preparing to invade Ukraine, saying that Moscow has the right to move troops around Russia domestically as it wishes.
In recent weeks, Russian troops and materiel have been flowing into neighboring Belarus, which shares a 674-mile border with Ukraine, in preparation for the second stage of joint Russian-Belarusian exercises slated to begin Feb. 10. Military analysts worry that the exercises could be a ruse to position Russian forces along Ukraine’s northern border in advance of a new invasion.
Paul Sonne contributed to this report.