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On the hunt for Russian saboteurs

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

TIM MAK, BYLINE: In a small village outside the city of Lviv in western Ukraine, we're trying to find some saboteur hunters. Since the start of the war, there's been a fear among Ukrainians that Russia-sympathizing saboteurs would destroy critical infrastructure, assassinate leading politicians and help the Russian military quickly take over the country. A local member of the territorial defense explains their process.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) Yeah. We have a special group, and people send us some, you know, suspicious people or some suspicious things that they see.

MAK: Things like strange accents or suspicious behavior - more than a hundred miles away, in the Rivne region along Ukraine's northern border with Belarus, the police are also trying to track down saboteurs. This is Ivan Teliha, the deputy chief of police for the region.

IVAN TELIHA: (Through interpreter) I think we did not the best job with preventing it. But we doing our best. And every day we're catching about 16 people and bringing them here.

MAK: Both civilians and military officials have been kept busy trying to find people who may be passing off information to the Russian government or hampering Ukrainian forces in some way. Vinnytsia, in central Ukraine, is home to the country's Air Force headquarters. Like the police in Rivne and the territorial defense members in Lviv, they're also on the lookout.

We spoke to Colonel General Serhii Drozdov, who holds the rank of a four-star officer in the Ukrainian Air Force. He explains that they too have caught some saboteurs who, in their case, tried to destroy Air Force equipment.

SERHII DROZDOV: We have some situation when the people help Putin's troops to provide you aggressive action. And these small troops provide destroy communication, provide destroy connection system.

MAK: Teliha, who works for the police in the Rivne region said they've detained some 200 people in their area since the outbreak of the war. Most of these are Russian-born individuals who locals have reported to the police for suspicious activity. He says they've collected evidence that these people have aided Russian forces.

TELIHA: (Through interpreter) You have phones. You have the log of the calls. You have different apps - Telegram, WhatsApp, Signal, Viber - where we can read what the messages they send. And that's how we figure that out.

MAK: But the police have a problem. Even if they catch alleged saboteurs red-handed, the law does not actually prohibit communicating with Russian sources.

TELIHA: (Through interpreter) We could see that with our own eyes that they actually communicating with the Russians. But to lawfully detain them and put them in jail - we cannot yet do this.

MAK: All the talk of saboteurs can make people paranoid. And additionally, in a time of war, rumors can get out of hand. One woman told NPR she was certain her uncle had caught a suspected saboteur. But after she called him for details, it turned out that her uncle had just gotten into a fight with a man who had cursed him in Russian.

The uncertainty and gossip can create panic and sow fear. In the early days of the war, markings were discovered all across Ukraine - some in ultraviolet, some in spray paint and some in sticker form. Teliha, the police officer, says a core function of saboteurs is to engage in psychological warfare, to play a mind game with Ukrainians.

TELIHA: (Through interpreter) We think that it's abnormal for people to walk around on rooftops, place ultraviolet markings, place them on the roads, place them on the walls.

MAK: But it's a game that Ukrainians feel like they have no choice but to play. So every night all across Ukraine, local volunteers, cops, territorial defense members, soldiers - they're all out after curfew looking for the elusive saboteurs.

Tim Mak, NPR News, central Ukraine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.