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Is Ukraine ready for a Russian attack? It depends what kind

Members of Ukraine's Territorial Defense Forces, volunteer military units, train close to Kyiv on Saturday. Dozens of civilians have been joining Ukraine's army reserves in recent weeks amid fears about Russian invasion.
Efrem Lukatsky
Members of Ukraine's Territorial Defense Forces, volunteer military units, train close to Kyiv on Saturday. Dozens of civilians have been joining Ukraine's army reserves in recent weeks amid fears about Russian invasion.

KYIV, Ukraine — Over the months that Russia amassed more than 100,000 troops on the borders of Ukraine — and in the years since Russia invaded in 2014 — authorities in Ukraine have worked to prepare their country for a renewed attack of some kind.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says his country is ready for hybrid warfare from Russia — meaning a mix of conventional attacks, like an invasion, alongside other forms of warfare, like cyber attacks, disinformation and political maneuvering.

But experts and authorities on the ground report a more mixed picture of the country's level of preparation.

Ukraine is vulnerable to a major cyber attack

Ukraine has repeatedly been a target of cyberattacks, especially since the 2014 Russian invasion of Crimea. In the years since Crimea's annexation — which is unrecognized by the international community — near-constant cyber warfare, much of it from Russia, has targeted almost every sector in Ukraine, from its power grid to its treasury to its media companies.

Just two weeks ago, yet another massive attack temporarily took down dozens of Ukrainian government sites, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Since 2014, the U.S. has spent tens of millions of dollars toward arming Ukraine with hardware, software and training to secure its critical infrastructure. Those efforts have ramped up in recent months.

But security experts are skeptical that Ukraine would be able to stop Russia from knocking out its networks.

"The reality is that you are not going to secure the Ukrainian networks in the next couple weeks here. That's a Herculean task," said Dmitri Alperovitch, a cyberdefense expert who has served as a special adviser to the U.S. Department of Defense.

But Russian disinformation has become less effective

Disinformation has also been a major factor in Ukraine in recent years, used by Russia to scare and confuse Ukrainians.

When war broke out in eastern Ukraine in 2014, fake news from Russia flooded over the border with the aim of instilling panic in parts of the country with greater sympathy for Russia, like Crimea, turning them away from the Ukrainian government and toward Russia.

Russian state-owned TV broadcast false stories about "fascists" in the streets of Kyiv, a ban on the Russian language in Ukraine, and looming food riots and rationing. One story, broadcast on Russian state TV, claimed that Ukrainian soldiers had brutally murdered and crucified a three-year-old boy. (That story was debunked by a group of Ukrainian journalists called StopFake.)

Those Russian narratives may have helped Russia annex Crimea — but 2022 is a different story, experts said.

"It worked, but it worked for a limited time. It doesn't work anymore," said Olga Tokariuk, a disinformation researcher with the Center for European Policy Analysis. "I think Ukrainians are more prepared. They are more aware of how Russia works."

One example: A series of bomb scares were called into Ukrainian schools in recent weeks, but many parents shrugged them off. Those bomb threats have been traced to Crimea, Zelenskyy said Friday.

Authorities in Kyiv are working to prepare the city

There has not yet been much disruption to everyday life in Kyiv, but the capital city — home to about three million people — is roughly 100 miles by road from the border with Belarus, where Russian troops have gathered, ostensibly for military exercises with the Belarussians.

Although an invasion feels unlikely to many who live in Kyiv, city officials say they are not as prepared as they'd like to be.

Alina Mykhailova, the deputy head of Kyiv's city council and a veteran of the Ukrainian military, says the city is ready in a psychological sense but less so in more practical ways.

"If you speak of bomb shelters, no. If you speak of informing residents, no. If you talk about security in general of the city, so-so," she said. "It's been eight years of war in Ukraine, and the city could have been better protected."

Kyiv has thousands of bomb shelters that date back to the Soviet era, when some of the USSR's nuclear arsenal was based in Ukraine.

Over the past several months, authorities have been working to bring as many shelters as possible back into operation.

But many are still unusable. Some have been flooded, others are inaccessible. Some shelters have even been taken over by barbershops or bakeries that have set up shop inside. "Authorities will have to take care of this situation and take it more seriously," Mykhailova said.

COVID-19 is slowing preparation. Like in much of Europe, the omicron variant has driven a spike in cases, meaning that many city administrators and employees are out sick instead of helping with preparations.

Ukraine's military has strengthened since 2014

Ukraine's military has made major strides since 2014, when the annexation of Crimea was made possible in part because of the weakness and inexperience of Ukraine's armed forces.

"We fully trust in our armed forces. They are not novices. They are not rookies," said Zelenskyy this week, a sentiment of confidence echoed by U.S. officials.

"Ukrainian troops are well-trained, they're well-equipped and they're very motivated. Ukrainians in general and the Ukrainian military are very patriotic. They love Ukraine. They're willing to fight to save it," said Kristina Kvien, the top U.S. diplomat in Kyiv, in an interview with All Things Considered on Friday.

That improvement has come with major help from international donors, primarily the United States.

The U.S. has committed more than $5.4 billion in aid to Ukraine since 2014, according to the State Department. About half that total has been security assistance, with the Biden administration announcing another $200 million on Wednesday.

Over the years, that military aid has taken many forms: Humvees, patrol boats, counter-artillery radar, a joint training center in western Ukraine.

This week, U.S. officials emphasized recent deliveries of Javelin anti-tank missiles, anti-armor systems and 283 tons of "ammunition and non-lethal equipment essential to Ukraine's front-line defenders," as Secretary of State Antony Blinken described it Wednesday.

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Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.
Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.