New granular detail about the planning of a false flag attack in Ukraine by Russia was among the intelligence items discussed in the Situation Room on Thursday night in an emergency meeting, U.S. officials confirmed to CBS News.
That detail was just part of what two U.S. officials described as a broad mosaic of information that has been building since the fall and which has led to the Biden administration's planning for the worst-case scenario of a multi-axis, simultaneous attack on Ukraine by the Russian military.
The Washington Post was the first to report, on Friday, that a false flag operation was among the data points in the new intelligence.
National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters Friday that the U.S. is firmly convinced that Russia is looking hard at the creation of a false-flag operation to justify an invasion, "something that they generate and try to blame on the Ukrainians as a trigger for military action." Sullivan said that any subsequent attack would likely begin with "aerial bombing and missile attacks" ahead of "the onslaught of a massive force."
Russian forces are already positioned to send troops pouring across Ukraine's northern border with Belarus and launch a maritime assault from the Black Sea. Moscow is also capable of sending troops over Ukraine's eastern border.
U.S. officials have said Russia already has intelligence operatives on the ground that could create a pretext for an invasion by assisting in creating a false flag.U.S. officials said this could involve Russian operatives "trained in urban warfare and in using explosives to carry out acts of sabotage against Russia's own proxy forces."
Weather conditions that freeze the ground would allow heavy Russian military equipment including tanks to advance more easily. But ground troops are not the only option that Russian President Vladimir Putin could use.
U.S. officials do not have evidence that Putin has decided to deploy these assets to launch an invasion but emphasize that he is now capable of making the decision to execute with very little warning. On Friday, Politico was the first to report that the U.S. had intelligence indicating that Russian military leaders had been told to be ready by February 16.
The cumulative picture of Moscow's planning triggered the U.S. on Saturday to pull out U.S. military advisers, withdraw some embassy staff from Kyiv and move staff to a makeshift consular post in Lviv, a city in western Ukraine. Sullivan said Friday that "prudence demands" planning — even though the U.S. does not know exactly what is going to happen.
Privately, U.S. and Western officials say it is entirely possible that this could be an incredibly dangerous and expensive bluff on Putin's part, but they argue that it is the responsibility of their leaders to weigh the risk.
Three Western officials from allied governments expressed skepticism that Putin would take action as extreme as putting 100,000 soldiers on the march and risk a state-on-state conflict, or be willing to take on the occupation of a country that has resisted Russian aggression for the past eight years. Yet all three acknowledged that intelligence indicates the Russian military is definitely planning for that option.
Camilla Schick contributed reporting.
for more features.