Russian missile strikes overshadow cyberattacks as Ukraine reels from blackouts


Russia has been attacking Ukrainian cities with missiles and drones for most of the past month, targeting civilians and swathes of the country’s critical infrastructure.

By Monday, 40 percent of Kyiv’s residents had no access to water, and widespread power outages were reported across the country. On Thursday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Russia of “energy terrorism” and said about 4.5 million Ukrainian consumers were temporarily without power.

The destruction shows that, eight months after the war on Ukraine, indiscriminate bombing remains the Kremlin’s preferred tactic. Meanwhile, Moscow’s vaunted hacking capabilities continue to play a peripheral rather than central role in the Kremlin’s efforts to dismantle Ukraine’s critical infrastructure.

“Why burn your cyber capabilities if you can achieve the same goal with a kinetic attack?” a senior U.S. official told CNN.

But there could be more questions about why Russia’s cyberattacks haven’t had a more visible impact on the battlefield, experts who spoke to CNN said.

A U.S. military official specializing in cyber defense argued that effectively combining cyber and kinetic operations “requires a high degree of integrated planning and execution.” “The Russians can’t even draw a gap between their aviation, artillery and ground assault forces.”

The lack of verifiable information on successful cyberattacks during the war complicates the situation.

A Western official focused on cybersecurity said Ukrainians may not publicly disclose the full impact of Russian hackers on their infrastructure and their links to Russian missile strikes. That could deprive Russia of insight into the effectiveness of its cyber operations, which in turn could affect Russian war plans, the official said.

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To be sure, a series of suspicious Russian cyberattacks have hit various industries in Ukraine, some of them linked to Russian military targets. But the kind of high-impact hacking that disrupts power or transportation networks has largely disappeared.

Nowhere is this more evident than in recent weeks when Russian drones and missiles have attacked Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. This is in stark contrast to 2015 and 2016, when more than 250,000 Ukrainians were kept in the dark by Russian military hackers, not bombs, following Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea.

“All Ukrainian citizens are living in this situation right now,” said Victor Zhora, a senior Ukrainian government cybersecurity official, referring to power outages and water shortages. “Imagine what your daily life would be like in the face of constant interruptions to electricity or water, mobile communications or everything else.”

A cyber operation targeting industrial plants could take months to plan, and after a bridge linking Crimea and Russia exploded in early October, Putin “tried to make a massive, flashy public about the attack on the bridge” response,” the senior U.S. official said.

But officials told CNN that Ukraine also deserves credit for improving its cyber defenses. In April, Kyiv claimed to have prevented hacking of substations by the same group of Russian military hackers that caused blackouts in Ukraine in 2015 and 2016.

The casualties of the war outweighed these victories.

For months, Ukrainian cybersecurity officials had to avoid shelling while doing their job: protecting government networks from Russian spy agencies and criminal hackers.

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On October 10, four officials from the State Service for Special Communications and Information Protection (SSSCIP), one of Ukraine’s main cyber and communications agencies, were killed in a missile strike, the agency said in a press release. The four officials had no cybersecurity responsibilities, but their losses have severely impacted the agency’s cybersecurity officers in another grim month of war.

Hackers with ties to Russian spies and military establishments have used a range of hacking tools to target Ukrainian government agencies and critical infrastructure for years.

Microsoft said in April that at least six different Kremlin-linked hacking groups conducted nearly 240 cyber operations against Ukrainian targets before and in the weeks after Russia’s February incursion. These included hacking, which the White House blamed on the Kremlin, which disrupted satellite internet communications in Ukraine on the eve of the Russian invasion.

“I don’t think Russia will measure success in cyberspace by one attack,” the Western official said, but by the “cumulative effect” of trying to bring down Ukrainians.

A man rides a bicycle across a destroyed bridge in the frontline town of Bakhmut in the Donetsk region on October 11, 2022

But now there are unanswered questions about the extent to which some private analysts and U.S. and Ukrainian officials have exhausted or “burned” some of their more sensitive access to Ukraine’s critical infrastructure in previous attacks by Russian government hackers. Once discovered, hackers often lose their original access to computer networks.

In 2017, as Russia’s hybrid war in eastern Ukraine continued, Russian military intelligence released a destructive malware called NotPetya before it spread around the world, according to the Justice Department and private investigators Wiped computer systems of companies across Ukraine. The incident disrupted shipping giant Maersk and other multinationals, costing the global economy billions of dollars.

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Matt Olney, director of threat intelligence and interception at Talos, Cisco’s threat intelligence arm, said the operation involved identifying widely used Ukrainian software, infiltrating and injecting malicious code to weaponize it.

“All of these are as effective as the end product,” said Olney, who has had a team in Ukraine that has responded to cyber incidents for years. “It takes time and sometimes opportunities you can’t imagine.”

“I am very sure [the Russians] Hopefully they have what they burned during NotPetya,” Olney told CNN.

Zhora, a Ukrainian official who is vice-chairman of SSSCIP, called on Western governments to tighten sanctions on Russia’s acquisition of software tools that could power its hacking arsenal.

“We should not pass up the following possibilities [Russian government hacking] The team is now working on some high-sophistication attacks that we will observe later,” Zhora told CNN. “It is highly unlikely that all Russian military hackers and government-controlled groups are on furlough or out of business. ”

Tanel Sepp, Estonia’s ambassador-at-large for cyber affairs, told CNN that as the battle on the battlefield continues, the Russians may turn to a “new wave” of intensified cyber attacks.

“Our main goal is to isolate Russia as much as possible on the international stage,” Sepp said, adding that the former Soviet state had not communicated with Russia about cybersecurity for months.


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