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Photo: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

The U.S. claims to have information indicating that Russia has "already prepositioned a group of operatives to conduct a false-flag operation in eastern Ukraine," laying the groundwork for a potential pretext to invade, according to a U.S. official.

Why it matters: Diplomatic talks between the U.S., its European allies and Russia failed to produce a breakthrough this week, raising fears that Moscow will invade Ukraine and unleash a devastating new war.

What they're saying: "The United States is concerned that the Russian Government is 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 official said.

  • "As part of its plans, Russia is laying the groundwork to have the option of fabricating a pretext for invasion, including through sabotage activities and information operations, by accusing Ukraine of preparing an imminent attack against Russian forces in eastern Ukraine."
  • "The Russian military plans to begin these activities several weeks before a military invasion, which could begin between mid-January and mid-February. We saw this playbook in 2014 with Crimea."

The big picture: Russian diplomats insisted during talks in Geneva, Brussels and Vienna this week that they had no plans to invade, but repeatedly warned that a very dangerous situation would ensue if the U.S. and NATO refused to accept its security demands.

  • Ukrainian military intelligence issued a similar warning about a potential "false flag" operation on Friday. Ukraine has also warned that an invasion would likely be preceded by an increase in cyber activity by Russian actors.
  • Websites for the Ukrainian foreign ministry and other government agencies were knocked offline on Friday by a "massive cyberattack." The perpetrators have not yet been identified.
  • The U.S. official said that "Russian influence actors" have already started to fabricate Ukrainian provocations on social media, including by "emphasizing narratives about deterioration of human rights in Ukraine and the increased militancy of Ukrainian leaders."

Go deeper: U.S. braces for Russian escalation as talks hit "dead end"

Go deeper

Biden boxed in on Ukraine

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Eric Lee/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Biden administration is pushing to get Congress, Europe and Ukraine on the same page as it tries to deter Russia from invading Ukraine — all while knowing that the decisive factor will ultimately be the whims of Vladimir Putin.

Why it matters: Officials from virtually all sides are warning that the risk of a large-scale, conventional war on the European continent is greater than at any time since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Few agree on how to stop it.

Updated Jan 14, 2022 - World

U.S. confirms Russia arrested REvil ransomware hackers

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaking in Moscow in June 2021. Photo: Alexei Nikolsky/TASS via Getty Images

Russia's security agency said Friday it arrested members of the Russia-based cyber gang REvil that was responsible for multiple massive ransomware attacks against U.S. companies last year.

The latest: A senior administration official confirmed on Friday afternoon that Russia informed the U.S. that it arrested the alleged hackers, including an individual responsible for the cyberattack that crippled the Colonial Pipeline.

Thousands without power as "hazardous" winter storm lashes East Coast

Satellite imagery of the Northeastern U.S. taken by NOAA on Jan. 17. Photo: NOAA

A major winter storm was lashing much of the East Coast on Sunday, causing widespread power outages and disrupting travel over the holiday weekend.

The latest: The Weather Prediction Center said in a storm summary Monday that winter storm warnings are still in effect for portions of the Central Appalachians, Ohio Valley, interior Mid-Atlantic, and Northeast, while portions of the Central Appalachians and coastal New England are under high wind warnings.