(Cyberwar.news) Just days prior to Ukraine’s presidential election last year, workers at the national election commission arrived at their stations to find their dreary Soviet-era headquarters engaged on the front lines of the world’s most intense cyberwars, The Wall Street Journal reported in recent days.
The previous night, as agency employees slept, a secretive pro-Moscow hacking group known as “CyberBerkut” attacked the premises with this stated goal: To cripple online systems that distributed voting results and voter turnout throughout election day. The collective managed to destroy software, fry hard drives, undo router settings and even take down the main backup system.
The sum of damage stunned computer and IT specialists the following morning, WSJ noted.
“It was like taking a cold shower,” said Victor Zhora, director of the Ukrainian IT firm Infosafe, which helped set up the network for the elections. “It really was the first strike in the cyberwar.”
In just three days the people of Ukraine would be heading to polling stations around the country in an election that was deemed critical to establishing the legitimacy of the new pro-West government, which was desperately seeking a mandate as civil war was spiraling out of control in the country’s eastern flank. If the commission were unable to offer the usual real-time election results online, that would sow widespread doubts about the legitimacy of the elections and further divide a nation already fractured.
Ultimately the attack did not succeed in preventing voting; Ukrainian computer specialists mobilized to restore online operations prior to ballots being cast. However, the intrusion made it clear that a new era in disruptive operations and, yes, even warfare, had begun: Specifically, how geopolitical conflict with Moscow lent itself to becoming victimized by cyberfoes loyal to the Kremlin.
The WSJ further reported:
In the last two years, cyberattacks have hit Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Defense and the presidential administration. Military communications lines and secure databases at times were compromised, according to Ukrainian presidential and security officials. A steady flow of hacked government documents have appeared on the CyberBerkut website.
Cyberwar in Ukraine is providing the U.S. and other Western governments a good look into the future of hybrid warfare that they are urgently preparing for – battles where conventional military forces are launched in coordination with asymmetrical cyber assaults that are designed to degrade and defeat a technologically advanced opponent. What is happening in Ukraine also demonstrates how difficult it can be for nations to defend against powerful cyber capabilities.
At present, the Ukrainian government lacks capabilities needed to mount an effective response to cyber attacks. Last year NATO members agreed to fund and construct a new cyberdefense command center for Kiev but bureaucratic red tape has delayed the project. And Ukrainian lawmakers are still working on legislation aimed at bolstering cyber defenses.
Still, Ukrainian officials are certain who is behind the attacks: Russia. They cite Russian military doctrine which states that cyberweapons are a key component of the Russian armed forces and the adoption of “enhanced and nonmilitary measures” to achieve military objectives. Officials, however, did not offer direct evidence of links to Moscow.
“We consider that there is only one country in the world that would benefit from these attacks, and this is Russia,” said Vitaliy Naida, Ukraine’s head of counterintelligence.
U.S. intelligence officials note that Russia is particularly skilled in cyberwar, adding that Moscow was likely behind the breaking into of President Barack Obama’s email and infiltrating unclassified servers at the Pentagon and State Department, actions the Kremlin has denied.
Part of Ukraine’s inability to adequately defend against cyber attacks is the country’s heavy reliance on Russian technology and telecommunications services, WSJ noted.
As Cyberwar.news reported previously, Russia has also stepped up attacks against U.S. systems, prompting the Obama administration to consider new sanctions in addition to those imposed following Moscow’s annexation of the Crimea and its suspected involvement in fomenting unrest in eastern Ukraine.
Also, as noted at Glitch.news, intelligence officials also suspect Russia of hacking into critical U.S. infrastructure such as banking systems and the power grid.