by Pavel Polityuk and Tom Balmforth
KIEV, Jan 14 (Reuters) – Ukraine has been hit by a massive computer attack that has posted messages on major government websites warning citizens to “be afraid and expect the worst”, even as that Russia, which has massed more than 100,000 soldiers near the border, unveiled images on television on Friday of a new deployment of troops.
This attack comes after several days of discussions between Moscow and the Western powers which did not lead to any progress allowing to remove the fears of a possible new invasion of Ukraine by Russia.
Moscow said on Thursday that its efforts to convince the West to prevent NATO’s eastward expansion, including integrating Ukraine, had led it to an impasse and threatened to lead military actions without specifying their nature.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Friday that Russia hoped security talks with the United States would resume but warned that would depend on Washington’s response to Moscow’s proposals.
“We will not categorically accept the appearance of NATO right on our borders, especially given the current line of conduct of the Ukrainian leadership,” he said.
Asked about the military actions envisaged, Sergei Lavrov indicated that it was a question of deploying military equipment.
“When we make decisions with military hardware, we understand what we mean and what we are preparing for,” he said.
Russian Defense Ministry footage released by the RIA news agency showed armored vehicles and other military equipment being loaded onto trains in Russia’s far east. Moscow said it was an inspection exercise to practice deploying over a long distance.
“It’s probably a cover for units moving into Ukraine,” said Rob Lee, a military analyst and fellow at the US-based Foreign Policy Research Institute. “EXPECT THE WORST”
Ukrainian officials have launched an investigation into the cyberattack, which they say affected some 70 government websites including that of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Cabinet of Ministers and the Security and Defense Council.
While they did not directly accuse Russia of being behind this attack, they made it clear that they suspected Moscow. Russia did not comment but had previously denied being behind similar attacks.
“Ukrainians! All your personal data has been uploaded to the public network. All data on the computer is destroyed, it is impossible to restore it,” read a message visible on the hacked government sites, written in Ukrainian, Russian and Polish.
“All information about you has become public, take fear and expect the worst. This goes for your past, your present and your future”.
The Ukrainian government said it had repaired the sites affected by the cyberattack and assured that no personal data had been stolen.
NATO reacted on Friday by announcing that it would sign in the coming days a new agreement with Kiev on closer cooperation in cyber defense, which will in particular give Ukraine access to the alliance system concerning the sharing malware information.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in a statement that the organization’s cybersecurity experts were working with Ukrainian authorities to respond to the computer attack, both remotely from headquarters in Brussels and on the ground in Ukraine.
The cyberattack was also condemned by the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell.
“I can’t blame anyone because I don’t have any proof, but we can imagine,” he said.
(With contributions from Matthias Williams in Kiev, Anton Kolodyazhnyy, Tom Balmforth and Andrew Osborn in Moscow, Sabine Siebold and John Irish in Brest; Written by Mark Trevelyan and Peter Graff, Blandine Hénault for the French version, editing by Nicolas Delame and Sophie Louet)