With President Volodymyr Zelensky looking on, 500 Ukrainian soldiers pummelled a vast field with rounds fired from Soviet-era tanks and new weaponry donated by Western countries.
The mock defence exercise against an invasion was held Wednesday just 85 kilometres from the Belarusian border, which Ukraine has eyed warily for signs of a real incursion by the Russian troops massed there and on its border with Russia – about 150,000 in total.
Foreign intelligence had indicated Wednesday as the date for a large-scale military attack, one that did not materialize. In response, Mr. Zelensky declared a “day of national unity” and was eager to stage a show of strength.
But that display, which included anti-tank and air-defence systems delivered in recent weeks from the U.S., Lithuania and elsewhere, also brought to light Ukraine’s vulnerabilities and insecurities – including the commercial-grade radio in the hands of a man barking orders to troops preparing for the exercise. He was a general with Operational Command West, one of four divisions of the country’s armed forces.
Ukraine’s military capabilities have advanced considerably since Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014. But military-grade radios are “very pricey,” said Colonel Andriy Melnyk, a specialist in mechanized infantry and reconnaissance. So parts of Ukraine’s military still rely on basic radios without the electronic shielding that can protect them from interception or interference.
“In 2014, when we started to use them, they were used in Russia by supermarket security guards,” Col. Melnyk said.
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Communications remains the most critical gap for Ukraine, he said, now that foreign governments have dispatched aircraft loaded with deadly tools to bolster its defences. Canada this week pledged $7.8-million in lethal equipment and ammunition, as well as a $500-million loan. What Ukraine wants now are radio systems made by L3Harris, a U.S. defence contractor. “What we need are the ones that are shielded,” Col. Melnyk said.
That plea comes as the threat against Ukraine remains acute if unchanged. Deputy defence minister Hanna Maliar said there is no indication that some Russian troops have withdrawn, as President Vladimir Putin said they would, and no sign of advances by strike groups that might indicate an invasion.
Russia has said it does not plan to invade Ukraine but has promised “military-technical” measures if its demands, including a guarantee that Ukraine will never be permitted to join NATO, are not met.
In that tense atmosphere, intense cyberattacks hit Ukraine for a second day, after a digital assault Tuesday marked the largest direct denial-of-service episode the country had ever dealt with. Deputy Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov told reporters the attack against banks and the website of the Ministry of Defence originated from servers in Russia, China, Uzbekistan and the Czech Republic. It included a flood of fake texts warning about bank disruptions, which caused a rush to ATMs that added to pressures on the financial system.
“This attack is unprecedented. It was prepared in advance. And the key goal of this attack is destabilization, it is to sow panic, to do everything so that a certain chaos appears in our country,” Mr. Fedorov said.
Government officials told reporters that no money or data was lost as a result of the cyberattack and that an attempt to breach the networks of Ukraine’s SBU security service had been repelled. Still, the attacks cost the country millions, officials said.
And while the foreshadowed Russian invasion did not materialize, neither did the display of defiance and solidarity Mr. Zelensky had called for.
There were extra yellow-and-blue flags hanging from government buildings in Kyiv, but most residents went about their day as usual.
A few dozen people did assemble Wednesday morning in the capital’s central Independence Square, known locally as the Maidan. They hoisted flags and sang the national anthem, Ukraine Has Not Yet Perished.
Ruslan Bilayev, the founder of a local drone company, waged a personal battle to keep the country’s spirits up. With Reuters running a live YouTube feed of the square – apparently in the expectation that it might capture some kind of military action – Mr. Bilayev and his team piloted one of their drones in front of the camera, with an cardboard sign attached that read, “Garage for Sale,” above the phone number of the Russian embassy in Kyiv.
But the mood was more nervous than defiant.
Taras Berezovets, a political analyst, said people were afraid to gather in large numbers. “Any public gathering, political rally, whatever, would be very dangerous. … There could be some provocations, not to mention the danger of a terrorist attack,” he said.
“We’re in a state of war. It’s not officially declared, but still.”
Russia remains capable “of a full-fledged invasion of Ukraine without any warning time,” NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg said.
With no sign of either an advance or withdrawal by Russian troops, Ukraine was left to discern if the ongoing encirclement constituted a genuine threat of engagement or just an extravagantly expensive tactic to press Mr. Putin’s agenda upon Europe.
“These recent days, we are really terrified of the war,” said Alla Muliar, a 17-year-old linguistics student who came to the Maidan Wednesday.
“We are a little bit confused and don’t know what to do.”
It hasn’t helped that the western airlift of new munitions has been accompanied by the withdrawal of Canadian, U.S. and British military trainers from Ukraine.
The newly arrived technology includes NLAW and Javelin anti-tank systems, M141 anti-bunker munitions, Stinger surface-to-air missiles and countersniper complexes, the latter supplied by Canada and designed to detect and locate shooters. That hardware is more capable than the Soviet-designed weapons Ukraine has traditionally used.
But the sudden arrival of new technology has put weapons in the hands of troops who don’t know how to use them, said Lieutenant-Colonel Ivan Gulenov, one of the country’s top experts in anti-aircraft defence.
The military is training troops to use the new weapons, “but because of the limited number of instructors, we cannot overload them.
“We need help,” Lt.-Col. Gulenov said.
It’s a vulnerability the country’s leaders have not been eager to highlight. The live-fire war games created a spectacle of lethal force, an attempt to draft a message in rockets and artillery: Ukraine possesses the necessary weapons and is prepared to use them if it is attacked.
“Beautiful exercise,” Mr. Zelensky told the troops after the smoke had cleared.
He then thanked them for “protecting our state.”
“Watching you,” he said, “makes us have faith in tomorrow, and today as well.”
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