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Information and Cyber Warfare in Ukraine

The Ukraine-Russia war will be marked in history as one of the first wars where cyber-attacks and modern information warfare came to the forefront of combat techniques along with traditional warfare. These warfare tactics are not just being employed by nation-states, but also by countless private organizations.

WHAT IS CYBER AND INFORMATION WARFARE?

A quick huddle on what cyber and information warfare means: Cyber warfare aims to neutralize an enemy’s critical systems supported through computers and computer networks. Targets can include banking institutions, electricity grids, power generators, water plants, nuclear plants, transportation systems, etc. An information warfare is the battle of truths, ideas, perceptions, and propaganda for manipulating morale, loyalty, influence, trust, and clarity of thought. Information warfare is mostly a psychological surgery aimed to destabilize a society by creating confusion, chaos, anxiety, panic, riots, and rebellions through news, websites, media posts, social media, and community platforms.

QUICK HISTORY ON UKRAINE-RUSSIA CONFLICT

In November 2013, political tensions in Kyiv, Ukraine mounted when President Viktor Yanukovych rejected a deal to increase the integration of the Ukrainian economy with the European Union. Ultimately, public resistance against President Yanukovych peaked, and he fled the country in February 2014. Later, Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula of Ukraine before the contested Crimean status referendum, NATO announced the deployment of four battalions to Eastern Europe, and France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine attempted to negotiate peace through the Minsk Accords. Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed his intentions had always been to “de-militarize and de-Nazify” Ukraine. More recently, on February 21, 2022, Russia recognized the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine as sovereign states.

On the cyber front, over the last few years hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have suffered multiple power blackouts through cyber-attacks by Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) groups allegedly originating from Russia. In the summer of 2017, the infamous ‘NotPetya’ cyber-attack intended for Ukraine spilled over the entire global network costing an estimated $10 billion.

CURRENT AFFAIRS IN CYBER AND INFORMATION WARFARE IN UKRAINE

Since Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24th, Ukraine has experienced fake SMS campaigns creating panic about ATMs running out of money. Cyber trolls posing as ordinary Ukrainians are constantly bombarding media platforms with pro-Russian propaganda to cause conflict within the citizenry. Access to important information is being blocked by launching denial-of-service (DoS) attacks against government agencies, military, financial institutions, and telecommunication companies, with many gov.ua websites collapsing. The official website of the President of Ukraine was down at the time of writing this article. Ukraine’s Police Department, State Administration of Seaports, National Health Service, and state authorities are experiencing massive phishing attacks potentially allowing full control and capture of victim machines. Government websites are being defaced showing provocative and demeaning content. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and The Ministry of Education and Science were hacked, and the official site suffered defacement with provocative content. Infamously, the WhisperGate and HermeticWiper malwares are ‘wiping’ machines in multiple organizations within Ukraine. Some of the alleged organizations involved in the attack are Sandworm (GRU), APT28/FancyBear (GRU), APT29/CozyBear (SVR), Gamaredon and The Buhtrap Group.

With such developments, banking and other critical institutions around the globe are functioning under high alert with governmental cyber commands and company threat centers ready to respond to declared clear and present danger. The fear is the repeat of NotPetya, Colonial Pipeline hack, the Stuxnet hack, supply chain cyber-attacks and government penetration. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other media companies are actively removing Russian propaganda videos and messages. Microsoft along with other cybersecurity companies has thrown itself in the middle of the ground war tracking malware activities and sharing threat intelligence with government agencies.

This war has forced the dreamy public-private partnership into a global reality. We, as citizens of the world residing outside of the conflict zone, need to analyze every piece of information consumed with healthy skepticism, only accepting news from ‘trusted and fact-checked’ sources. People should be alert toward phishing attacks and propaganda designed to manipulate minds.

UKRAINE’S SUCCESSES

Ukraine’s sixth President, Mr. Volodymyr Zelenskyy, has managed to win the hearts and minds of billions of citizens across the globe with just a smartphone in hand, elevating him to a folk hero status. At his appeal and his government’s behest, Ukraine has not only gained substantial warfare ammunition and non-lethal aid from nations, but has also received a tangible outpouring of support from private companies, while over a million refugees have crossed borders for protection. Top companies like Microsoft, Google, SpaceX, BP, Shell, Visa, MasterCard, WarnerMedia, Facebook, Twitter, Apple, EA Sports, Accenture, BCG, Volkswagen, and ArcelorMittal among others have mobilized their resources to aid Ukraine. Ukraine’s ‘IT Army’ has allegedly brought down the websites of the central bank of Russia and the Moscow Stock Exchange, with thousands of global hackers joining its ranks as their collective attention turns toward the war. Ukraine is also creating nationalistic propaganda to boost morale. The government promoted the ‘Ghost of Kyiv’ video on social media celebrating a single Ukrainian fighter pilot for allegedly shooting down ten Russian enemy planes. However, one of the early viral videos seems to be born from a combat flight simulator. Videos of Ukrainian freedom fighters and war heroes are also being massively circulated in the citizenry. The hacktivist group Anonymous also dropped a video sternly warning Putin over his actions and since then has allegedly hacked Russia’s RT TV channel, penetrated space research institute websites, leaked files belonging to the Russian space agency and breached its control systems.

This past week, Mr. Zelenskyy’s courage seems to be the wind beneath the wings for this global movement for Ukraine and for the time being, Ukraine is overwhelmingly winning the Information War.

Image Source: The Associated Press via Office of the President of Ukraine

Content Sources: UA-CERT (Ukraine), US-CERT, Council on Foreign Relations USA, Financial Times, WIRED, Forbes, The New York Times, Microsoft, SANS Institute

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