Ukraine War – Crippled by cyberattacks, why has Russia’s counter-‘digital offensive’ been languid?


When Russia invaded Ukraine more than a month ago, there were fears that there would be massive cyberattacks against Ukraine and its supporters, including the NATO powers led by the United States. But such is the situation today that it is Russia that complains of being the target of cyberoffensives.

In a March 29 statement, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s website said: “In fact, state institutions, media, critical infrastructure and life support systems are subjected to powerful blows every day with the use of advanced information and communication technologies.

At the instigation of the kyiv regime, an “international call” of anti-Russian computer scientists was announced, in effect forming “cyber offensive forces”. The bill for malicious attacks against us runs into the hundreds of thousands a day.

Of course, the Russian press release spoke of Moscow’s ability to resist these attacks. In fact, he went so far as to warn that “No one should have any doubts: the cyberaggression unleashed on Russia will have grave consequences for its instigators and its executors. The sources of the attacks will be established, the attackers will inevitably be held responsible for what they have done in accordance with the requirements of the law.

Interestingly, this Russian complaint/threat came five days after the United States accused four Russian hackers of cyberattacks against the global energy sector between 2012 and 2018. On March 24, the United States unveiled criminal charges against them, claiming they carried out two of the hacking campaigns targeting the global energy sector and affecting thousands of computers in 135 countries.

Russia’s formidable cyber power is well known, especially to Americans, many of whom still believe that without Russian cyber intervention, Donald Trump would never have become President of the United States.

With regard to Ukraine, it is also well known that in 2015 suspected Russian hackers crippled the Ukrainian power grid using a Trojan horse virus, Black Energy, which resulted in the loss of electricity by almost 2 30,000 households. In 2016, a similar cyberattack took place, but this time it not only targeted the power grid, but also disrupted Ukrainian banking and government networks.

However, so far in the ongoing war, many military experts believe that Russia has not used the type of cyber warfare in Ukraine as feared. Ukraine has witnessed attacks, but these have been manageable and containable.

File Image: Vladimir Putin and
Sergei Shoigu

According to the BBC, Ukrainian national telecommunications operator Ukrtelecom now says it is restoring internet services after fending off a major cyberattack. But UKrtelecom also admitted to restricting access to customers “to protect military users and critical infrastructure”.

The BBC report also reveals that although Ukrtelecom claims to be the largest fixed internet provider in the country in terms of geographical coverage, it is second only to Kyivstar in terms of number of customers. Kyivstar is operating at around 80% full coverage even after damage from the Russian invasion.

Ukrainians therefore do not have significant Internet problems.

Some argue that Russian restraint in cyber warfare in Ukraine may be due to the fact that Ukraine is not new to cyber warfare and that any attack on that country could have adverse effects on Russia itself.

All in all, thanks to years of cyberattacks and shenanigans from its big neighbor Russia, Ukraine is now a digitally competent state that has also learned to help itself and become more resilient in the process.

“In fact, there are no cyber weapons,” says political scientist Lennart Maschmeyer, who conducts cybersecurity research at ETH Zurich. “The idea is there, but it has nothing to do with how cyberattacks work.”

Unlike conventional weapons, cyber weapons depend on the vulnerabilities of their targets and can only cause the damage that the attacked system itself allows.

“The means do not exist independently of the ends”, emphasizes Maschmeyer. Additionally, the risk of losing access due to updates or unmasking limits the choice of when to use it. As a result, speed, intensity and control influence each other negatively during cyber operations.

Maschmeyer, who has investigated cyberattacks against Ukraine in recent years, says that cyberattacks against the country have not had the expected effects, except in the case of the NotPetya malware, “which caused considerable damage in Ukraine and internationally, but also affected Russia”. himself.

A destroyed Russian tank (Oryx)
File Image: A destroyed Russian tank (Oryx)

On the other hand, as the German publication “Repbulik” complied with, Ukraine and its supporters were open in their cyber operations against Russia:

1. The hacker group Anonymous has declared “digital war” on the Russian president. Various government websites – in particular the Defense Ministry – stock exchange and Russia’s largest bank websites were temporarily unavailable. (Whether this all goes to Anonymous’s account is controversial.)

2. The Ukrainian government has formed a voluntary global IT army, which anyone with the appropriate skills can join. The aim is to hack Russian targets, such as the natural gas company Gazprom, the oil company Lukoil or the censorship authority Roskomnadzor. This voluntary “IT Army” is coordinated via Telegram and has 270,000 members. It is said to be “an absolute novelty for a democracy”.

3. Ukraine’s digital minister asked entrepreneur Elon Musk via Twitter if, instead of conquering Mars, he could unlock his Starlink satellites for Ukraine to keep internet going for Ukraine. Elon Musk immediately delivered receiver systems to Ukraine; it unblocked Starlink satellite internet service for Ukraine. This would allow Ukrainian women to surf the Internet even if cellphones and other services had to be canceled due to the war.

4. At the request of the Ukrainian state, Google and Apple shut down real-time traffic information in the country to protect the population.

But then, as the publication’s editor Adrienne Fichter warns, all of these measures could have negative side effects. Signals from Musk’s receiver system can be intercepted by Russia.

Second, if various attackers such as “anonymous” exploit computer security vulnerabilities, install malware and thus cripple each other’s infrastructure, then there will be a kind of “digital Jekami” in which everyone can participate . The end of it all will be nothing but a highly insecure internet.

The Russian SRBM Iskander-M. (File photo/Wikimedia Commons)

Third, allowing individuals to openly attack a state will create legal anomalies. Wars are often violent conflicts between states, not between a state and a few individuals. Here “anonymous” being part of the fight, it will be difficult to qualify it as “cyberwar”.

Fourth, Fichter cites the work of Myriam Dunn Cavelty, another researcher who conducts cybersecurity research at ETH Zurich, which reveals that cyber operations, at most, are always actions that prepare or support a strategic objective; it is about weakening the adversary by manipulating his population with false information, but they hardly influence the results of wars.

“The cyber dimension is overestimated in the media debate. It hardly influences the actual events of the war,” she says, adding “what Anonymous and other groups are currently planning and implementing here does not impress the Russian military. These (Russian military) focus on the roads. And count on tanks, grenades and missiles.

  • Veteran author and journalist Prakash Nanda is Chairman of the Editorial Board of EurAsian Times and has been commentating on politics, foreign policy and strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and a recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Fellowship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow of the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies. CONTACT: [email protected]
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