US officials claimed that a Russian effort is underway to conduct “a false-flag operation” in eastern Ukraine amid rising tensions.

US intelligence believes Russia could begin the operations several weeks before a military invasion.
US intelligence believes Russia could begin the operations several weeks before a military invasion. (AP)

The United States has accused Russia of sending saboteurs trained in explosives to stage a pretext to invade Ukraine, where government websites were knocked out in a cyber attack linked to Moscow.

The allegations and incident on Friday mark a striking new escalation in tensions over Ukraine, just after a week of talks between the West and Russia that sought a diplomatic solution.

Detailing intelligence findings, the White House said that Russia was "laying the groundwork to have the option of fabricating a pretext for invasion" by blaming Ukraine.

"We have information that indicates Russia has already prepositioned a group of operatives to conduct a false-flag operation in eastern Ukraine," said Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary.

"The operatives are trained in urban warfare and in using explosives to carry out acts of sabotage against Russia's own proxy forces," Jen Psaki added.

Russia has denied plans to invade Ukraine and quickly dismissed the latest US statements, with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov calling them "unfounded".

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"Sabotage"

US intelligence believes Russia could begin the operations several weeks before a military invasion, which could start between mid-January and mid-February, 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," Jen Psaki added.

The US ambassador to NATO, Julianne Smith told reporters in Brussels that there remained "an array of scenarios" possible on the ground, including a "full-scale conventional military attack".

Russia has amassed tanks, artillery and tens of thousands of troops near the border of Ukraine as it demands guarantees that its neighbour will never join NATO.

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'A prelude for military activities'

"Hacker groups associated with the Russian secret services may stand behind today's massive cyberattack on government websites", foreign ministry spokesman Oleg Nikolenko said upon preliminary indications.

Russia has repeatedly been accused in hacking attacks in the ex-Soviet country and in the West.

In response to the attack, NATO announced new cyber cooperation with Kyiv on Friday and said its experts were on the ground in Ukraine to offer support.

European Union foreign ministers, meeting in the French city of Brest, promised support as well, with several saying that they had feared a cyberattack to set the stage for a Russian invasion.

"Some say the cyberattack could be the prelude for other activities, military activities," Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg told reporters.

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Source: TRTWorld and agencies