The official said the US has evidence that the operatives are trained in urban warfare and in using explosives to carry out acts of sabotage against Russia's own proxy forces. The allegation echoes a statement released by Ukraine's Ministry of Defense on Friday, which said that Russian special services are preparing provocations against Russian forces in an attempt to frame Ukraine. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan hinted at the intelligence during a briefing with reporters on Thursday.
The US intelligence finding comes after a week's worth of diplomatic meetings between Russian and Western officials over Russia's amassing of tens of thousands of troops along Ukraine's border. But the talks failed to achieve any breakthroughs, as Russia would not commit to de-escalating and American and NATO officials said Moscow's demands -- including that NATO never admits Ukraine into the alliance -- were non-starters.
The US official said that the Biden administration believes Russia could be preparing for an invasion into Ukraine "that may result in widespread human rights violations and war crimes should diplomacy fail to meet their objectives."
"The Russian military plans to begin these activities several weeks before a military invasion, which could begin between mid-January and mid-February," the official said. "We saw this playbook in 2014 with Crimea."
The US has also seen Russian influence actors begin to prime Russian audiences for an intervention, the official said, including by emphasizing narratives about the deterioration of human rights in Ukraine and increased militancy of Ukrainian leaders.
"During December, Russian language content on social media covering all three of these narratives increased to an average of nearly 3,500 posts per day, a 200% increase from the daily average in November," the official noted.
The US, NATO and European officials held high-stakes meetings this week with Russian officials. At the end of the three meetings on Thursday, both sides came away with a pessimistic outlook. Russia's deputy foreign minister suggested the talks had reached a "dead-end" and saw no reason to continue them, while a senior US official warned that the "drumbeat of war was sounding loud"
following the diplomatic sessions.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Friday that Russia believes NATO will increase its activity along its border with Ukraine if Moscow doesn't obey the West's demands. "While our proposals are aimed at reducing the military confrontation, de-escalating the overall situation in Europe, exactly the opposite is happening in the West. NATO members are building up their strength and aviation. In the territories that are directly adjacent to Ukraine, on the Black Sea, the scale of exercises has increased many times recently," Lavrov said.
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