Russian expertise in digital warfare is so well acknowledged around the globe that it’s been a debating point over the last two electoral cycles in the US.
That’s why it was something of a surprise when NetBlocks and other internet observers reported that many official Russian websites were offline. And this is global. These Russian governmental websites can’t be reached anywhere globally, which suggests that the attack went against the very central server in the system and succeeded.
The Kremlin’s website, the State Duma’s (the Russian version of a congress), and the defense ministry are down. This happens, of course, as the Russian army is making its way through the Ukrainian territory, and even the city of Kyiv is in evacuation mode.
Since Russia is the world’s favorite boogie-man when things like these happen elsewhere in the world, the most crucial question is: who is doing this and why?
The Western governments have all been cautious in paying lip service to Ukraine’s international rights and sovereignty while actually doing nothing to prevent Russian aggression. And this happens even though NATO warranted Ukraine’s security when it gave up its nuclear arsenal upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
It was the deal that prevented nuclear proliferation throughout Eastern Europe and Central Asia. With atomic sites, every former member of the USSR was forced by Russia (with Western support) to give up its arsenal. So it’s improbable that any Western agency is behind these cyber hits. Also, the success of these attacks may be flashy, but their usefulness is questionable at best.
Some observers are attributing the attack to Anonymous, the hacker group. However, news from the masked men implies that they will move on and attack websites and networks that have to do with infrastructure, as they keep bringing down other relevant Russian websites.
But before you start to cheer up for the hackers that brought the Russian websites down, keep in mind that many Ukrainian official websites went down recently on February 23, 2022.
When we write this, there is no reliable information that would allow us to establish both attacks as independent or otherwise. The field is open to speculation. If Anonymous or any other hacking consortium is behind any of the attacks, it will be exceedingly hard to assign responsibilities. Russia was blamed as soon as it happened, of course. Since the attacks happened alongside the military invasion, it would have been an expected move. Now it’s unclear.
Is there a digital war on the works because of Russia and Ukraine?
Nothing keeps up with technology better than wars and armies. In fact, military research has been the driving force behind many of the technologies we enjoy so much today — the internet or GPS, to name just two. So as this new war happens in the brave new interconnected world, we should not be surprised to see how many brand new digital weapons get deployed.
Let’s clarify what we mean by a weapon. No, it doesn’t have to be a space ray that deletes all the porn in your computer. Just picture this: for the last few days, thousands of Ukrainian residents have been getting lots of text messages telling them that the ATMs in the country don’t work. Of course, there was nothing wrong with the ATMs. The point of those SMSs was to create panic, obviously. The prime suspect is Russian military intelligence, to nobody’s surprise.
Russia says it has never “conducted and does not conduct any ‘malicious’ operations in cyberspace.”
As these events unfold within Ukraine, people worldwide are developing a concern — is this digital mayhem going to expand to the West?
As we explained earlier, NATO was supposed to guarantee Ukraine’s freedom, and it’s doing nothing, at least at the military level. So could it be that the West will wage its war against Russia online instead? Yes, it is. It’s the only possibility, maybe.
However, if we’re going to think about cyberwar, we need to keep our feet on the ground. So far, all the hacking has been nonviolent, and it’s caused no irreversible damage to the economy or either the Russian or Ukrainian societies. And that’s how we would expect it to continue. This may be a war indeed, but being a virtual war waged in the digital space, the chances are that the consequence will be equally virtual and limited to that virtual space.
In any case, this is a historic moment. Any reasonable forecast would have included cyberattacks as part of any country’s arsenal. And this is the first time we are seeing this type of resource being weaponized to support a real war.
Can this spill out away from Ukraine? How bad can it get? The answers are: yes, and terrible.
Let’s go back to 2017. The NotPeya malware infected thousands of systems around the globe. At first, it targeted Ukrainian businesses and organizations. Then it went global. Even multinationals such as Merck had to deal with it. The damage was beyond 10 billion USD. We bring NotPeya up because its creation is “credited” to Sandworm, the Russian military intelligence hacking unit. They’re evil, work for Putin, and are world-class.
Russia would profit nothing from attacking the West through the internet as of now. But if it did, it could target something like critical infrastructure. An effective attack of this type would do a lot of damage at every level, not just financial.
The Western intelligence community is aware of Sandworm, of course. They’ve been seeing how it gains expertise and power over the last few years, hoping that nothing would ever happen so that they would pull the trigger directly against them. Is this the time at which the nightmare becomes real?
As things stand now, the conflict will be short, Russia will get its way, and the West will do little or nothing to stop Putin in his tracks. In this context, the digital theatre in this war will remain limited to Ukraine, and the rest of the world won’t even notice it. So let’s hope that nothing escalates further.