Russians Have Already Started Hybrid War With Bomb Threats, Cyberattacks, Ukraine Says

February 14, 2022

Russians Have Already Started Hybrid War With Bomb Threats, Cyberattacks, Ukraine Says


Moscow is using cyberattacks, economic pressure and, most recently, false bomb threats, to undermine its neighbor, Kyiv says


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KYIV, Ukraine—U.S. officials are warning that Russia could be about to attack Ukraine. For many citizens in this embattled country, the assault has already begun.

Ukrainian officials say that Russia, which has positioned more than 100,000 troops around three sides of Ukraine, is stepping up a destabilization campaign involving cyberattacks, economic disruption and a new tactic: hundreds of fake bomb threats.

Russian forces and their proxies already control portions of Ukraine and frequently skirmish with government forces. The aim of Moscow’s intensifying hybrid campaign, Ukrainian officials say, is to weaken their country and sow panic, potentially provoking discontent and protests of the kind Russia fomented in eastern Ukraine in 2014 to justify its interventions there. U.S. and U.K. officials said last month they uncovered coup plots intended to install a puppet pro-Russian government.

The tactics illustrate how Russian President Vladimir Putin can maintain pressure on Ukraine without escalating to a shooting war that could provoke sanctions from the West. Ukrainian officials say a destabilization campaign is more likely than a large-scale invasion.


“The No. 1 task for Russia is to undermine us from inside,” Oleksiy Danilov, the top national security adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, said in a recent interview.

Russia has denied it has any plans to invade or cause harm to Ukraine. Moscow argues that the West is causing damage to the ex-Soviet republic by trying to integrate the country into its alliances.

Since Russia invaded parts of Ukraine in 2014, it has employed a variety of tactics to try to sap the country’s resources and will to fight. The Kremlin can dial up the level of fighting in Ukraine’s east through the separatists it controls there, killing Ukrainian soldiers and wrecking everyday lives near the front-line. An increase in fighting there could provide the Kremlin with a pretext to send its army deeper into Ukraine, as it did in Georgia in 2008.

Russian destabilization efforts since 2014 have had mixed results. Ukrainian support for membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and European Union has grown to more than half the population. Ukraine’s economy hasn’t collapsed, and trade has shifted from Russia to the EU and elsewhere. The Ukrainian government has bolstered cyber defenses and closed TV stations it called propaganda channels.

However, weak points remain, and Russia is probing.

Ukraine is one of the poorest countries in Europe and has a vulnerable economy. The Russian military buildup has led investors to freeze projects and pull money out of the country. The national currency, the hryvnia, has weakened but not seen a full-blown panic.


Russia announced Thursday naval drills in the Black Sea that would close off swaths of water along Ukraine’s southern coast, inhibiting traffic to key ports for exports. Ukraine’s foreign ministry complained about the economic consequences of the closures, calling them part of Russia’s “hybrid warfare.”

“Russia’s economic warfare against Ukraine continues,” the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv said on Twitter.

Russia has long limited sea traffic into the Azov Sea via the Kerch Strait, forming what Ukraine says amounts to a partial blockade of ports including the industrial hub of Mariupol.

“They want to throttle our economy,” said Mr. Danilov.


Ukraine has girded against some of Moscow’s tactics. Kyiv turned off Russian state channels in 2014, saying they were spreading disinformation aimed at fomenting discord. Last year, Mr. Zelensky extended a ban on Russian websites to include social network Vkontakte.

Mr. Zelensky last year also sanctioned the closure of three television channels owned by a close friend of Mr. Putin. The station had lambasted Ukraine’s leadership and promoted closer ties with Russia. Ukrainian officials say it was covertly financed by Moscow and was yet another source of Kremlin disinformation.

“We closed Russian propaganda channels financed by the aggressor country,” said Mr. Danilov, the presidential security adviser. “That isn’t about freedom of speech. It’s about the information war Russia was pursuing.”


After the U.K. identified a Ukrainian lawmaker and television channel owner, Yevhen Murayev, as a potential puppet ruler who could be installed by the Russians, Ukrainian protesters demonstrated outside his channel’s offices in Kyiv and called for its closure. Mr. Murayev denied involvement in any such plot.

Some Ukrainians are taking measures beyond protesting. Myroslav Hai, a military veteran and film producer, set up powerful radio equipment near the front line in the eastern Luhansk region to broadcast Army FM, a Ukrainian radio station, with such a strong signal that it replaced a separatist station in Russia-allied territory.

“It’s important to show that someone is doing something small every day,” he said.

Kyiv has bolstered its cyber defenses after a string of attacks, including with training at “hackathons” organized by the EU and NATO.


Cyberattacks in 2015 and 2016 temporarily took down power grids in Ivano-Frankivsk in western Ukraine and Kyiv, the capital. A malware attack in 2017 affected one in 10 businesses nationwide and was designed to cripple the economy, according to Viktor Zhora, deputy chief of Ukraine’s State Service of Special Communication and Information Protection.

A cyberattack last month, which authorities blamed on Russia and its close ally Belarus, defaced several dozen government websites and installed malware. Mr. Zhora says Ukrainian authorities thwarted a graver attack that was aimed at accessing the state register, a data set on companies and individual entrepreneurs.

“The plan was to destabilize and seek chaos,” said Mr. Zhora.

Another new tactic, according to Ukrainian authorities, is bomb threats.


Ukrainian police said there were nearly 1,000 anonymous messages in January, mostly by email, falsely claiming bomb threats against nearly 10,000 locations, from schools to critical infrastructure.

Kateryna Morozova’s 7-year-old daughter called her last month asking to be collected from school as teachers had told her to leave quickly. A teacher soon said on a messenger group that there had been a bomb threat against the school. Children who had been swimming had to grab what clothes they could and rush outside into the cold and snow, she said.

“I didn’t feel so worried,” said Ms. Morozova, 30 years old. “We got used to these fakes.”