US officials warned Friday that Russia may try to portray Ukraine as an aggressor as a pretext to invade the country.
“We are concerned that the Russian government is preparing for an invasion of Ukraine that could lead to widespread human rights abuses and war crimes if diplomacy fails to achieve its objectives,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told a news briefing.
As part of its plans, Russia is laying the groundwork for the option of creating a pretext for the invasion,” he said.
The warning came after Ukrainian government websites were down in the wake of a “massive” cyber attack. Seven ministries, in addition to the cabinet, the treasury, the emergency service and state services, were disrupted.
A message on the site warned Ukrainians to “expect the worst”.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Oleg Nikolenko said investigations were “ongoing” but security services had obtained “initial indications” that hackers linked to Russian intelligence services were behind the attack.
US and Western officials have been concerned about a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine for weeks, as tens of thousands of Russian troops have gathered at the neighboring country’s border.
A Pentagon spokesman, John Kirby, described the intelligence that Russia could portray Ukraine as preparing to launch an attack on Russian-backed forces as “extremely credible.”
“We’ve certainly seen this evidence before, particularly in 2014, with their illegal occupation of Crimea,” Kirby added.
“The Russian military plans to start these activities several weeks before the military invasion, which may start between mid-January and mid-February,” Psaki said.
White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said Thursday that US intelligence agencies have not made an assessment that the Russians have definitively decided to take a military course of action.
But Sullivan said Russia is paving the way for invasion under false pretense if Putin decides to go down that path.
The American warning came after negotiations between Russia and the United States in Europe with the aim of stopping the escalating crisis.
The Russians demanded that NATO not expand to Ukraine or other former Soviet Union countries, but the United States described these demands as not objective.
The United States has said it is ready to negotiate with Moscow about possible future deployments of offensive missiles in Ukraine and to place restrictions on US and NATO military exercises in Eastern Europe.