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Russia has 'hybrid warfare' options to attack Ukraine

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

More than 130,000 Russian troops remain massed near Ukraine's borders, but people in Ukraine are also worried about something else - hybrid warfare or war by other means, means that could include Russia sparking civil unrest, launching cyberattacks and spreading mass disinformation all in hopes of toppling the Ukrainian government. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from the town of Kalanchak.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Shouting in non-English language).

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Over the weekend, members of Ukraine's National Guard, police and Border Patrol staged drills on how to put down a Russian-backed rebellion like the ones they've seen in the past. In the small town near Russian-occupied Crimea, the group of more than 50 men played demonstrators. They marched into the town square to protest the government, banging on empty fuel drums, only pausing to sing along with a recording of the Ukrainian national anthem.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHCHE NE VMERLA UKRAINA")

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in non-English language).

LANGFITT: Some lit cars on fire. Others, wearing balaclavas and carrying AK-47s, seized a government building...

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

LANGFITT: ...Only to have the police and National Guard retake it with the help of an armored vehicle. Kyrylo Serhieiev, an adviser to Ukraine's Ministry of Interior, watched from the street and explained.

KYRYLO SERHIEIEV: (Through interpreter) The main forces who protect the country from the enemy are the Armed Forces of Ukraine, but the army always needs time to deploy. We are now working on so-called first responders.

LANGFITT: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy also attended the training. He wore a big winter coat in Army green. The scene had a surreal quality. Firefighters had put out the burning cars with white foam retardant, which floated in the air like small clouds as Zelenskyy addressed the Russian threat to a crowd of reporters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: (Through interpreter) We understand that any offensive action and the occupation can begin within the state. We understand that surprises can come from anywhere.

LANGFITT: Alexander Khara is a former Ukrainian diplomat who works with the Center for Defense Strategies, a key think tank. He says if there were an invasion, it would also include a cyberattack, which he says is a frequent Russian tactic, although Moscow routinely denies it.

ALEXANDER KHARA: On the 14 of January of this year, there was a massive cyberattack on Ukrainian governmental sites. Some 70 governmental systems were down.

LANGFITT: And today, there were more attacks. Ukrainians said they couldn't make payments or check their balances on apps for two state-run banks, though service has been restored. Hackers also took down the websites for the Ministry of Defense and the Armed Forces.

And Khara says he anticipates more terror threats. He says there have already been more than 300 bomb scares called into schools this year.

KHARA: Last year, it was 1,100 calls, and certainly one of the key objectives of that is to shaken the, let's say, political stability.

LANGFITT: Like many analysts here, Khara says the Russian president's strategy is to sow so much confusion, division and chaos that Ukrainians will do his work for him.

KHARA: President Putin is a rational actor, and certainly he would to - Ukrainians to destroy our country by our own hands.

LANGFITT: Russia continues to insist it has no plans to invade and claimed today it's even sending some troops home, though NATO says it sees no change on the ground. Another hybrid war tool is disinformation. Yevhen Fedchenko is chief editor of the fact-checking website stopfake.org

YEVHEN FEDCHENKO: A couple of days ago, they introduced as a story that Ukrainian far-right radicals are building dirty bomb with nuclear component to use against Russians.

LANGFITT: Which is completely false - Fedchenko's interest here is also personal. He says Russian disinformation split his own family after Russia seized Crimea in 2014. Some of his relatives living there planned to come to Kyiv to retrieve their money from a bank. Then they called to tell him this.

FEDCHENKO: They're not going to Kyiv because we watched Russian television, and they explained that its old Ukrainian far-right nationalists killing anyone speaking Russian.

LANGFITT: The claim was absurd. Russian is spoken throughout the country, but Fedchenko couldn't persuade them otherwise. They said they'd seen Putin on TV promise to provide some compensation for people like them for lost bank accounts. Fedchenko recalled them saying the most important thing was Crimea reuniting with Great Russia.

FEDCHENKO: That was actually our last conversation since 2014, and I've never heard back from them after that.

LANGFITT: And these were which - what kind of family members? Were these extended or close family members?

FEDCHENKO: It was rather close family.

LANGFITT: While the world continues to focus on Russian troop movements near the border, many analysts here say the real contest is psychological. As one put it, the battle space is the mind.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Kalanchak, Ukraine.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID KITT'S "BETWEEN THRESHOLDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.