Is Ukraine cyberattack a precursor to Russian invasion?

GCHQ helping Kyiv as Moscow blamed for strike on key infrastructure

Ukrainian troops on the frontline in Svitlodarsk, Ukraine
Ukrainian troops on the front line in Svitlodarsk, Ukraine
(Image credit: Wolfgang Schwan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Russian invasion fears are mounting after Ukraine’s Ministry of Defence was hit by the largest cyberattack in the besieged country’s history.

The government in Kyiv has accused Moscow of targeting the ministry and two of the nation’s largest banks with so-called denial of service attacks – “attempts to overwhelm a website by flooding it with millions of requests”, said The Guardian.

“Senior military sources” told The Telegraph that the UK’s GCHQ security agency had stepped in to help “toughen” Ukraine’s cyber defences, amid fears that a huge cyberattack on key infrastructure could pave the way for a full-scale invasion by Russian forces.

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‘Attacks on our state’

Both the UK and the US were “helping harden” Kyiv’s resistance, according to The Telegraph’s sources, and have “options to disrupt any Russian offensive and counter their disinformation”. These options reportedly include “helping to identify where there has been intrusion onto networks and malware planted, as well as identifying vulnerable access points”.

The cybersecurity chief of Ukraine’s SBU intelligence agency, Ilya Vityuk, said yesterday that while it was too early to pinpoint exactly who carried out the latest assault, “the only country that is interested in such attacks on our state, especially against the backdrop of massive panic about a possible military invasion, the only country that is interested is the Russian Federation”.

“An individual hacker or a group of hackers cannot afford to spend such money,” he added. “Such attacks are carried out by states through special services and special infrastructure.”

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters in Moscow that the allegations were unfounded, adding: “We do not know anything. As expected, Ukraine continues blaming Russia for everything.”

‘Sow panic’

According to Radio Free Europe (RFE), “several Ukrainian ministries” were targeted along with the defence department and two banks in a series of cyberattacks on Tuesday. Associated Press reported that at least ten Ukrainian websites suffered outages, including that of the armed forces.

The two targeted banks, Privatbank and Oschadbank, “reported problems with payments”, with some customers unable to access their accounts, “while others could not see their account balances and recent transactions”, RFE said.

Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov warned that the “unprecedented” cyberassault was designed “to sow panic, to do everything so that a certain chaos appears in our country”.

The strike came amid “ongoing reports of a looming Russian further invasion of Ukraine”, said The Kyiv Independent. The Kremlin has “massed over 140,000 troops around Ukraine and in the Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine”, prompting more than “20 embassies” to tell “their citizens to immediately leave the country”, the English-languages news site reported.

New front line

Ukraine has long struggled to fend off cyberattacks suspected of being backed by the Russian state. The BBC reported in January that “about 70 government websites” had been hit in “the largest such attack on Ukraine in four years”.

Before the sites went offline, a message flashed up warning Ukrainians to “prepare for the worst” and claiming that “all your personal data has been uploaded onto the public internet”.

“This is for your past, your present and your future,” the message said.

The EU subsequently pledged to “mobilise resources to help Ukraine deal with the cyberattack on its government websites”, Radio Free Europe (RFE) reported.

According to Politico, Russia has repeatedly used digital technology to “disrupt communications and wage psychological warfare, like sending threatening text messages to soldiers”. These texts have reportedly included messages saying “soldier go home”, “soldier kill your commanding officer” and “surrender, we will defeat you anyway, this is our land and you are Ukrainian fascists”.

Some experts believe that “if the Kremlin does de-escalate militarily, similar deniable attacks could follow”, The Guardian reported. Danny Lopez, a former diplomat who runs cybersecurity firm Glasswall, told the paper that “cyberattacks could now play an important role, to keep the pot warm on the stove but not spilling over into actual conflict”.

Ciaran Martin, former chief of the UK National Cyber Security Centre cyber agency, said that “if Russia escalates against Ukraine, there’s the risk of another NotPetya-style accident” – a reference to a June 2017 ransomware strike on around 2,000 people and organisations worldwide.

“After all, NotPetya, perhaps the most economically damaging cyberattack of all time, was the accidental fallout against the West of the Russians hacking Ukraine,” Martin continued.

Other experts and officials fear that cyberattacks may be a precursor to a military invasion.

White House cybersecurity adviser Anne Neuberger warned “earlier this month that Russia could use cyberattacks as part of its efforts to destabilise and further invade Ukraine”, RFE reported.

Russia is also “suspected of phoning hundreds of false bomb threats to Ukrainian schools in an attempt to spark panic”, said The Telegraph. And with Russia troops amassed at the country's borders, the “efforts to destabilise” the country “run parallel” with military threats in the Kremlin’s playbook for a potential invasion.


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