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Cyberattack hits Ukraine as US warns Russia could be prepping for war

Moscow dismissed such warnings, though it has amassed more
than 100,000 troops on its neighbour’s frontiers and on Friday released
pictures of more of its forces on the move.

The cyberattack unfolded hours after security talks wrapped
up on Thursday with no breakthrough between Moscow and Western allies.

Ukraine said its president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, had proposed
a three-way meeting with the leaders of Russia and the United States.
Zelenskiy’s chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, said the “life and death”
of his country hung in the balance.

White House press secretaryJen Psakitold reporters the
United States was concerned that Russia was preparing for the possibility of a
new military assault on a country it invaded in 2014.

“As part of its plans, Russia is laying the groundwork
to have the option of fabricating a pretext for invasion, including through
sabotage activities and information operations, by accusing Ukraine of
preparing an imminent attack against Russian forces in eastern Ukraine,”
Psaki said.

A US official said the United States had information that
indicated Russia had already positioned a group of operatives to conduct
“a false-flag operation” in eastern Ukraine.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov dismissed such reports as
based on “unfounded” information, TASS news agency reported.

Russia denies plans to attack Ukraine but says it could take
unspecified military action unless its demands – including a promise by the
NATO alliance never to admit Kyiv – are met.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Russia hoped
security talks with the United States would resume but that this would depend
on Washington’s response to Moscow’s proposals.

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“We categorically will not accept the appearance of
NATO right on our borders, especially so given the current course of the
Ukrainian leadership,” he said.

Asked what Moscow meant by threatening this week to take
“military-technical action” if talks fail, Lavrov said:
“Measures to deploy military hardware, that is obvious. When we take
decisions with military hardware we understand what we mean and what we are
preparing for.”

Russian Defence Ministry footage released by RIA news agency
showed armoured vehicles and other military hardware being loaded onto trains
in Russia’s far east, in what Moscow called an inspection drill to practise
long-range deployments.

“This is likely cover for the units being moved towards
Ukraine,” said Rob Lee, a military analyst and a fellow at the US-based
Foreign Policy Research Institute.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov speaks during his annual news conference in Moscow, Russia Jan 14, 2022. Maxim Shipenkov/REUTERS

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov speaks during his annual news conference in Moscow, Russia Jan 14, 2022. Maxim Shipenkov/REUTERS

“EXPECT THE WORST”

Ukrainian officials were investigating the cyberattack,
which they said hit around 70 internet sites of government bodies including the
security and defence council.

Though they avoided directly accusing Moscow, Ukraine’s
foreign ministry spokesperson told Reuters that Russia had been behind similar
strikes in the past.

A spokesperson for the White House National Security Council
said it was not yet clear who was responsible. “We are in touch with the
Ukrainians and have offered our support,” the spokesperson said.

Russia did not comment, but has previously denied being
behind cyberattacks, including against Ukraine.

“Ukrainian! All your personal data was uploaded to the
public network. All data on the computer is destroyed, it is impossible to
restore it,” said a message visible on hacked government websites, written
in Ukrainian, Russian and Polish.

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“All information about you has become public, be afraid
and expect the worst. This is for your past, present and future.”

The message was peppered with references that echoed
long-running Russian state allegations, rejected by Kyiv, that Ukraine is in
thrall to far-right nationalist groups.

The Ukrainian government said it had restored most of the
affected sites and no personal data had been stolen.

NATO responded by announcing that it would sign a new
agreement within days with Kyiv on closer cooperation in cyber defence,
including giving Ukraine access to the Western military alliance’s system for
sharing information on malicious software.

Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in a statement that
NATO cyber experts were already working with the Ukrainian authorities to
respond to the attack.

The European Union’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, said the
EU’s political and security committee and cyber units would meet to see how to
help Kyiv.

“I can’t blame anybody as I have no proof, but we can
imagine,” he said.

On the streets of Ukraine, there was growing resignation to
the prospect of renewed fighting. Kyiv resident Ruslan Kavatsyuk, 39, said he
saw the cyberattack as a “positive”, since it would stiffen the
resolve of the Ukrainian public.

“It reminds us that we live during military times, that
Russia is an enemy who will kill us physically,” he said.

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