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Cyberattack hits Ukraine as US warns Russia to prepare ‘pretext for invasion’

The United States has said it fears Russia could prepare a pretext to invade Ukraine if diplomacy fails to achieve its goals, after a massive cyberattack splashed Ukrainian government websites with a warning ” fear and expect the worst”.

Moscow has dismissed those warnings, although it has amassed more than 100,000 troops along its border and released photos of others of its forces on the move on Friday.

The cyberattack – which Kyiv’s state security service said showed signs of Russian involvement – came hours after security talks ended on Thursday, with no breakthrough between Moscow and its allies. Westerners.

Ukraine said its president, Volodymyr Zelensky, had proposed a three-way meeting with the leaders of Russia and the United States. Zelenskiy’s chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, said his country’s “life and death” were at stake.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that the United States fears Russia is preparing for the possibility of another military assault on a country it invaded in 2014.

On Friday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki speaks with reporters at the White House. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

“As part of its plans, Russia is preparing the ground for the possibility of fabricating a pretext for the invasion, including through sabotage activities and information operations, accusing Ukraine of preparing an imminent attack on Russian forces in eastern Ukraine,” Psaki said.

A US official said the United States had information indicating that Russia had already positioned a group of agents to carry out “a false flag operation” in eastern Ukraine.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed the reports as based on “unsubstantiated” information, TASS news agency reported.

Russia denies plans to attack Ukraine, but says it could take unspecified military action unless its demands – including a promise from the NATO alliance never to admit Kiev – are satisfied.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia hoped security talks with the United States would resume, but that would depend on Washington’s response to Moscow’s proposals.

Cyberattack hits Ukraine as US warns Russia to prepare ‘pretext for invasion’
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov speaks at a press conference in Moscow on Friday. (Dimitar Dilkoff/Pool/AP)

“We will categorically not accept the appearance of NATO just at our borders, all the more in view of the current orientation of the Ukrainian leadership,” he said.

Asked what Moscow meant by threatening this week to take “military-technical measures” if the talks fail, Lavrov said: “Steps to deploy military materiel, that’s obvious. When we make decisions with military equipment, we understand what we mean and what we are preparing for. “

Russian Defense Ministry footage released by the RIA news agency showed armored vehicles and other military equipment being loaded onto trains in Russia’s Far East, in what Moscow called an inspection exercise to train for long-range deployments.

“It’s probably a cover for units moved to Ukraine,” said Rob Lee, military analyst and member of the US-based Foreign Policy Research Institute.

‘Prepare for the worst’

Ukrainian officials were investigating the cyberattack, which they say hit about 70 websites of government agencies, including the Security and Defense Council.

Ukraine’s state security service, SBU, said it had seen signs indicating the involvement of hacker groups associated with Russian intelligence.

A White House National Security Council spokesman said it was not yet clear who was responsible. “We are in contact with the Ukrainians and have offered our support,” the spokesman said.

Cyberattack hits Ukraine as US warns Russia to prepare ‘pretext for invasion’
The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry building in Kyiv is seen in this undated photo. The country’s foreign ministry website was one of several government sites temporarily taken down in a hacking attack on Friday. (Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Press Service/Associated Press)

Russia has not commented, but has previously denied being behind cyberattacks, including against Ukraine.

“Ukrainian! All your personal data has been uploaded to the public network. All data on the computer is destroyed, it is impossible to restore it,” read a post visible on hacked government sites, written in Ukrainian, Russian and Polish .

“All information about you has become public, be afraid and expect the worst. It is for your past, present and future.”

Cyberattack hits Ukraine as US warns Russia to prepare ‘pretext for invasion’
A laptop screen displays a warning message in Ukrainian, Russian and Polish that appeared on the official website of the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry after a massive cyberattack on Friday. (Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters)

The post was peppered with references that echoed longstanding Russian state claims, dismissed by Kyiv, that Ukraine is in the grip of far-right nationalist groups.

The Ukrainian government said it had restored most of the affected sites and no personal data was stolen.

NATO responded by announcing that it would sign a new agreement with Kyiv in a few days on closer cooperation in cyber defence, including giving Ukraine access to the Western military alliance system for sharing information about malware.

Cyberattack hits Ukraine as US warns Russia to prepare ‘pretext for invasion’
A member of Ukraine’s military forces marches through a frontline trench with Russian-backed separatists in the Donetsk region on Tuesday. (Anatolii Stepanov/AFP/Getty Images)

Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in a statement that NATO experts were already working with Ukrainian authorities to respond to the attack.

European Union top diplomat Josep Borrell said the EU’s political and security committee and cyber units would meet to see how to help Kyiv.

“I can’t blame anyone because I don’t have any proof, but we can imagine,” he said.

On the streets of Ukraine, there was growing resignation at the prospect of renewed fighting. Kiev resident Ruslan Kavatsyuk, 39, said he viewed the cyberattack as “positive” because it would strengthen the resolve of the Ukrainian public.

“It reminds us that we are living in military times, that Russia is an enemy that will kill us physically,” he said.