What the shadow war in Ukraine might say about a possible Russian invasion

Ukraine's security services say they're facing a growing wave of false bomb threats at metro stations in Kyiv and at schools across the country, along with shadowy plots to attack critical infrastructure — some allegedly involving Russian organized crime gangs.

Among other threats, Ukrainian security services say they're on the lookout for sleeper agents

The internal threats growing inside Ukraine

2 years ago
Duration 1:50
The world may be focused on Russian troops on Ukraine’s border, but there are also numerous threats growing inside the country.

There's a phrase used half in jest by the people in Ukraine's security services to describe potential Russian sleeper agents, political agitators and hired guns.

They're called "canned people."

Few are laughing about it today as the embattled eastern European country faces a growing wave of false bomb threats at metro stations in the capital Kyiv and at schools across the country, along with shadowy plots to attack critical infrastructure — some allegedly involving Russian organized crime gangs.

These "canned people" are so called because they're allegedly bought and paid for by the Russian intelligence services — primarily the Federal Security Service (FSB) — and then kept on the shelf until they're needed.

They could be older Ukrainians with Russian heritage who have more allegiance to Moscow than to Kyiv. They could also be Russian citizens who moved to the republic following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

CBC News conducted background interviews this week with Ukrainian security and defence officials about the rising turmoil they face and where it might lead.

Organized crime and the Kremlin

At the end of January, the SBU, Ukraine's security service, announced that counterintelligence officers had "neutralized an organized criminal group coordinated by Russian special services" after raids in the cities of Zhytomyr and Kharkiv.

The aim, they said, was to attack civilian targets.

Security forces claim to have arrested 80 agents and spies in the past year.

Ukrainian National Guard troops storm a roadblock in a training exercise simulating a terrorist attack. The exercise took place in the abandoned town of Chernobyl north of Kyiv on Friday. (Murray Brewster/CBC News)

The world's attention has been focused on the massive Russian military buildup on Ukraine's borders.

But the security officials and an expert in hybrid conflict say an equally dangerous shadow war is already underway inside the country — one that could soon escalate into violence.

While allied nations, including Canada, continue to warn of imminent military action on the part of Moscow, Ukrainians have a slightly different assessment.

The pre-invasion playbook

Many Ukrainians believe that their country is still being softened up for invasion and the ongoing threats — including a massive cyberattack that temporarily took down government servers — are among the opening gambits. There are fears of subversion, assassination and even more widespread economic destabilization.

Terror attacks, civil disturbances and smear campaigns are all part of Russia's pre-invasion playbook and the tactics are being ripped straight out of the old Soviet-era KGB method of operations.

Ukrainian National Guard troops take part in a mock casualty care exercise. The unit was given combat medical training by Canadian troops. (Murray Brewster/CBC News)

"Internal destabilization and positioning that destabilization as some sort of far-right coup, that was always part of the Russian media operations," said Oleksandr Danylyuk, a lawyer, activist and chairman of the Centre for Defence Reforms, a think-tank that has studied Russian warfare methods.

The Russians have long blamed far-right, pro-western sympathizers for the 2014 overthrow of Ukraine's pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovych.

Staged provocations

Danylyuk said pro-Russian sympathizers are still everywhere in the Ukrainian government, some of them holdovers from Yanukovych's day and his political party.

They can also be found in some veterans' organizations. Danylyuk warns that the current round of threats — which are meant to harry, wear down and exhaust police and security services — could soon escalate into staged protests or other provocations.

"They could use those protests as a disguise for the special operations, including attacks on government facilities, military state command and control," Danylyuk said.

It's only when Ukraine is on the verge of becoming a failed state that we could see Russian military intervention, he added.

Ukrainian National Guard members arrive for a training exercise simulating a terrorist attack. The exercise took place in the abandoned town of Chernobyl north of Kyiv on Friday. (Murray Brewster/CBC News)

War games in Chernobyl

Preparing for that scenario was at the heart of a major emergency response exercise undertaken Friday by Ukraine's foreign ministry amid the silent ruins of Chernobyl, the deserted town in northern Ukraine near the site of the world's worst nuclear accident. (Ironically, Chernobyl is one the easiest places to stage hard-edge urban warfare training with live ammunition.)

With tiny drones floating overhead broadcasting loudspeaker warnings to an absent civilian population, first responders rehearsed evacuating civilians (in this case played by actors) from nearby buildings.

The display, viewed by nearly 100 representatives of international media, was followed by a platoon of National Guard soldiers in white winter camouflage. They assaulted a roadblock position and later an apartment complex to demonstrate techniques for fighting dug-in terrorists or other extremists. There was also a sniper demonstration.

Ukraine’s Interior Minister Denys Monastyrskyi (left) and Defence Minister Oleksi Reznikov speak to the media after observing an exercise of emergency responders and National Guard troops at the abandoned town of Chernobyl. (Murray Brewster/CBC News)

Both Ukraine's Interior Minister Denys Monastyrskyi and Defence Minister Oleksi Reznikov said they were pleased with what they saw. They continued to dismiss the notion of an immediate invasion.

"You see two ministers here together. It means we're ready together," said Reznikov in response to a question from CBC News about the likelihood of a terrorist incident or some other kind of provocation.

'Quite impressive'

The National Guard unit that led the demonstration was instructed by Canadian military trainers as part of Operation Unifier.

"It was actually quite impressive," said Col. Rob Foster, Canadian defence attaché in Kyiv. He, along with other members of the western defence attaché contingent in Kyiv, observed the exercise.

"Today was all about inter-agency cooperation and what you saw were defence and security forces working together. Putting it all together and making it work as a unified team. It's quite impressive."

Another under-appreciated facet of the conflict has been how the talk of war has battered the Ukrainian economy.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks during a news conference for the foreign media in Kyiv, Ukraine on January 28, 2022. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Reuters)

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky recently blamed the alarmist messages coming out of allies like the U.S., Britain and Canada for scaring investors and promoting a 10 per cent decline in the country's currency.

Zelenksy's government was forced to dip into the country's foreign currency reserve recently to help shore up the currency. His government is now seeking financial support from the U.S. and other nations.

Ukraine's Finance Minister Serhiy Marchenko has suggested Washington could underwrite bonds issued by the government in Kyiv because of the high cost of borrowing on international markets.

The state of the country's economy was something Canada picked up on early. The Trudeau government quickly granted Ukraine a sovereign loan.

More needs to be done by other nations and international institutions, said Canada's former ambassador to Ukraine.

"It's important that people follow Canada's lead. Canada lent $120 million to Ukraine," said Roman Waschuk. "The IMF and others should be doing similarly to provide a cushion so that Russia doesn't win without firing a shot."


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.