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Security experts doubt Ukraine readiness against Russian cyberattack


We're going to begin today's program in Ukraine, where a major existential question hangs over the country - will Russia attack? More than 100,000 Russian troops are amassed on Ukraine's borders. Ukraine's president says his country is ready for hybrid warfare. NPR's Daniel Estrin is in the country's capital and has been looking into how well Ukrainians are prepared on multiple fronts.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: In 2015, a Ukrainian power plant operator filmed his computer screen as his mouse cursor started moving around, clicking and opening folders - a mysterious hacker.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: What's he trying to do? the operator says. Section breakers - he's trying to switch them off.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: About 200,000 Ukrainians lost power in the winter cold. Same thing happened the following winter in part of Kyiv. The year after that, NPR's Morning Edition reported this.


STEVE INSKEEP: A cyberattack has hit tens of thousands of computers worldwide.

RACHEL MARTIN: This attack is similar...

ESTRIN: The world's most costly cyberattack ever.


R MARTIN: This all started in Ukraine, and it initially targeted government and business computer systems. Then it spread to companies all over the world.

ESTRIN: Russia has been blamed for all these attacks, and in the years since, the U.S. has spent about $50 million helping Ukraine with hardware and software and training to secure its critical infrastructure. Those efforts have ramped up in recent months as tensions have boiled over with Russia. Cybersecurity expert Dmitri Alperovitch has been following all of this from the U.S. and thinks Ukraine will not be able to prevent Russia from knocking out Ukraine's networks.

DMITRI ALPEROVITCH: I'm not confident at all. If the telecommunication network gets attacked, how are they going to do that? How are they going to let people know where they should go?

ESTRIN: Then there's the threat of disinformation, fake news that Russia could disseminate to scare and confuse. When war broke out in eastern Ukraine in 2014, Russian state-owned TV broadcast a fake news story about Ukrainian soldiers crucifying a 3-year-old boy. It scared many Ukrainians.

OLGA TOKARIUK: So it worked, but it worked for a limited time. It doesn't work anymore.

ESTRIN: Olga Tokariuk researches disinformation. She's with the Center for European Policy Analysis.

TOKARIUK: Yeah, I think Ukrainians are more prepared. They are more aware of how Russia works.

ESTRIN: Ukraine has blocked pro-Russian TV, and many Ukrainian parents are shrugging off bomb scares that have been called into schools in recent weeks. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, speaking to journalists through an interpreter, said Ukraine has traced those bomb threats to Crimea, which Russia occupied in 2014 and annexed.


PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: (Through interpreter) So far, we are managing to do such things successfully, but there is lots of disinformation, even, in a way, about these bomb reports to the schools and to kindergartens. There's lots of disinformation. There's lots of calls, lots of warnings.

ESTRIN: And how is the capital, Kyiv, prepared for an actual military bombardment? Deputy City Council head Alina Mykhailova says the city is not entirely prepared. She says many city administrators are out sick with COVID. She's been checking on the city's bomb shelters. Some are ready. Others are flooded or even taken over by barbershops and bakeries that have set up shop inside.

ALINA MYKHAILOVA: (Through interpreter) While I cannot say that someone is guilty of it, it's authorities who have to take care of this situation and take it more seriously.

ESTRIN: She says there is one area where Ukrainians are very well prepared. If war does come, morale is high. Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Kyiv. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.