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Kyiv braces for Russian attacks, physical and beyond

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

More than 100,000 Russian troops are deployed near Ukraine's borders. The looming threat of an invasion is causing many high-level negotiations among world leaders. How ready are Ukrainians who are on the ground? We're joined now by NPR's Daniel Estrin in Kyiv. Thanks very much for being with us, Daniel.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: So how are Ukrainians prepared? Are they for what could be a ground invasion?

ESTRIN: Well, if you're asking about the military, they have learned from their experience fighting Russia for the last eight years in eastern Ukraine and fighting Russian-backed separatists. They're better trained now, and the U.S. has been airlifting them a lot of weaponry, as well. If you're asking about civilians, I've been wondering how the capital is preparing for war because Russian troops are just a few hours' drive from Kyiv, where I am now. The deputy head of the Kyiv City Council, Alina Mykhailova, told me she's been checking on the city's bomb shelters. She has suggested a local TV channel run public service announcements about how to act if the city's bombarded. She told me the city's planning checkpoints to protect residents. And I asked her, is Kyiv ready for a Russian incursion today?

ALINA MYKHAILOVA: (Through interpreter) Psychologically, yes. If you speak about bomb shelters, well, no. If you speak about informing residents, no. If you talk about security in general of the city, well, so-so. It's been eight years of war in Ukraine, and the city could have been better protected.

SIMON: Daniel, what about what's now called the prospect of hybrid warfare? What would that be like?

ESTRIN: Yeah, hybrid warfare means a traditional military campaign combined with unconventional warfare in the cyber sphere, for instance. And this could look like attacks that Ukraine has seen in recent years - knocking out the power grid, knocking out electricity, taking out government internet sites so you can't get official information, taking out ATMs so you can't get cash. These are not imaginary scenarios. We've seen in 2015, a power plant was hit with a cyberattack. Two hundred thousand people lost power temporarily in the cold of winter - happened again the next year, the year after that. The world's most costly cyberattack ever, which started in Ukraine and shut down all kinds of systems - the banks, the airport. And Russia has been blamed for those attacks. Two weeks ago, Ukrainian governments - many of their websites were hacked, as well.

SIMON: And how well are Ukrainians prepared for cyberattacks?

ESTRIN: Ukraine has learned a lot from their experience, and they have gotten help from the U.S. The U.S. installed hardware and software in critical infrastructure. In recent weeks, the U.S. has ramped up those efforts to help Ukraine secure strategic systems. We're talking U.S. defense officials, FBI, other contractors working daily with the Ukrainians on this. So the power grid, banks, airport - they're better protected now. But the U.S. assessment is that if Russia attacks, they will have some success. The U.S. assessment is that Russia could even paralyze communication networks, infrastructure for, say, a week - enough to carry out a military strike. And the question is, how quickly could Ukraine get its systems back up and running? We really don't know the answer to that question.

SIMON: I think it's safe to say that the Russians can be masters at disinformation. What are Ukrainians trying to do about that?

ESTRIN: Yeah, fake news. Well, there is a classic example of this from 2014. Fighting began in eastern Ukraine then, and Russian state-owned television broadcast a fake news story - a woman claiming that Ukrainian soldiers had crucified her 3-year-old boy. It was completely debunked. It's false. But at the time, many Ukrainians in the east were duped, and they were terrified of their own army. Today, Ukrainian researchers in disinformation tell me that a lot of Ukrainians today are much more immune to this kind of Russian disinformation. Ukraine has banned pro-Russian TV channels. They've blocked Russian social media sites. Russia could still pump out false messages scaring and confusing civilians at a time of war - they could do that on Telegram, which is a popular messaging app here. But in general, Ukrainians feel that they're more alert to what Russia might do because they've seen Russia do a lot of it already in the last several years.

SIMON: NPR's Daniel Estrin in Kyiv, thanks very much.

ESTRIN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.
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