Ukrainian security officials announced Tuesday they had stopped an attempt by a Russian-backed crime organization to destabilize the country amid worries of an invasion by Moscow.
Kiev’s SBU security service announced that counterintelligence officers “neutralized an organized criminal group coordinated by Russian special services” after raids in the cities of Zhytomyr and Kharkiv.
“The gang’s organizers were preparing to commit a series of robberies on urban infrastructure, including the commercial sphere,” the SBU said in a statement. “According to their plan, this should have destabilized the internal situation in the regions.”
The security service further revealed that the group was organized by two “local residents,” one of whom is a Russian citizen.
“Under the guise of alleged employment in a security firm, they selected ‘candidates’ for the gang,” their statement explained. “To do this [they] used their own connections among representatives of crime.”
During the operation, law enforcement recovered an explosive device, draft plans for robberies, computer equipment and electronics with “evidence of illegal activities,” as well as small arms and ammunition.
Images released by the agency show that officials also recovered large amounts of cash — in US, Ukrainian and European currency.
According to SBU, “urgent investigative and operational actions are underway” to bring the plotters to justice.
The arrests come as Western nations continue to sound the alarm about a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine, after Moscow pressed the US and NATO to block the country from ever joining the Atlantic alliance.
While Ukraine is pushing a message of calm, saying there is “no need to panic,” NATO allies and the US are preparing to boost their military presence in Eastern Europe.
On Monday, the Pentagon announced it would be putting up to 8,500 US-based troops on “heightened alert” in the event NATO decides to activate its 40,000-strong NATO Response Force (NRF) in response to an invasion.
Tuesday’s announcement by the SBU follows a White House warning earlier this month that it had intelligence that Russian operatives had been deployed to conduct a “false flag” operation against Moscow’s proxies in eastern Ukraine that would serve as a signal for an invasion to begin.
Meanwhile, UK Armed Forces Minister James Heappey called out recent Russian plots in an op-ed published by the Sun newspaper.
“Where we see Russian plans we will expose them, such as their ‘false flag’ attacks and plots for puppet regimes,” he wrote. “As I write, we are becoming aware of a significant number of individuals that are assessed to be associated with Russian military advance-force operations and currently located in Ukraine.”
Approximately 100,000 Russian troops have massed along the Ukrainian border. Just last week, Russia was seen moving military weapons, equipment and troops into Belarus — stoking fears of an invasion from the north.