News / Europe

Russia-Ukraine Crisis Could Trigger Cyber War

Doug Bernard
On the day Crimeans voted in a referendum in March on secession from Ukraine, hackers from a group calling itself the "Cyber Berkut" pelted NATO websites with online nuisance attacks designed to knock the pages offline.

While not technically sophisticated, the DDoS, or "denial of service" attacks, were enough to send several websites - including a cyber-security site in Estonia - into darkness for several hours.

NATO quickly recovered: the sites came back online, the hack attack ebbed, and no serious damage was done.

But it sent a clear message - a warning shot of sorts of things to come.

As tensions have escalated between Kyiv and Moscow, so too has the frequency of online attacks targeting a variety of government, news, and financial sites located across Ukraine and several in Russia.

So far, these attacks have amounted to mere skirmishes rather than all out cyber war.

However, with the possibility of further Russian military incursions into eastern Ukraine, a full-blown cyber war may be looming on the European continent.

And that, in turn, could draw in many more nations into the Ukrainian crisis. 

Destabilizing an unstable situation

"In terms of conflict between the Western-oriented parts of Ukraine and Russia, it’s a little surprising we haven’t seen more hacking already," former Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security Stewart Baker said.

"Ukraine isn't a great power but they have some talented hackers," he said. "If there’s an area they can punch above their weight, it's cyber crime."

Baker, now a parnter at the Steptoe and Johnson law firm, said that hacking and cyber mischief are nothing new for either nation.

Ukraine is well known for harboring a large number of talented cyber criminals working for various organized crime syndicates.

"They've learned how to buy protection with the government," Baker said; "and the connections are pretty tight."

For its part, Russia has not shyed from flexing its cyber muscles, notably in Estonia in 2007 and Georgia in 2008.

Although the Kremlin never admitted responsibility, Internet analysts say that the attacks originated inside Russia and were organized by Russians.

Those attacks were likely carried out by the Nashi, a semi-official nationalistic Russian youth movement tied to the Kremlin, analysts say.

But Baker and other analysts note that since then Russia has invested considerable resources into building more sophisticated and potent offensive cyber capabilities, which would likely be deployed this time in a more serious cyber battle.

Complicating matters further, much of Ukraine's telecommunications infrastructure runs through lines and switches controlled by Russia.

Already this March, Ukraine's Security Service accused pro-Russian activists in Crimea of shutting down mobile and landline phones in western Ukraine, especially targeting members of Parliament.

That combination of Russian offensive capability and access to infrastructure makes Ukraine unusually vulnerable to cyber attack. And that's a situation the Kremlin may not be able to long resist.

"You could definitely see a paired attack," Baker said, "with telecommunications shutdowns in the west crippling the government, and a more psychological warfare in the east where access to news is shut off and the zone flooded with inflammatory false reports."

"In an already unstable situation, the situation could quickly become much worse," Baker said. "This may turn out to be a new tactical strategic approach, something we haven't seen before."

Lessons from Iran

In 2012, U.S. financial institutions came under a sustained cyber attack believed to be orchestrated by Iran, but using a diffuse array of servers located around the world.

As reported by The Washington Post, the Obama Administration debated a forceful response to aggressively target and destroy Iranian target servers, but in the end opted for a different approach.

The administration quietly assembled a coalition of 120 nations that voluntarily agreed to choke off the Iranian attacks and they passed through their national network.

That had the effect of stopping the hack at the target end, rather than the source.

U.S. administration officials feared that an aggressive response may well have provoked a more punishing, sustained set of attacks by Iran and its allies targeting a much larger set of American targets, analysts say.

"As good as our capabilities are, there is always the possibility for unintended consequences when you take [cyber] actions," one administration official told the Post.

That's a lesson that one leading cyber security expert seems to have taken to heart.

"Regarding the fairly muted Ukrainian response so far, Russia essentially owns Ukraine's information and communication infrastructure," said Jeffrey Carr, founder of the Internet security firm Taia Global. "It's just a matter of will for them to shut it down."

Like many security analysts, Carr believes most nation's digital infrastructures are largely unprotected from the damage a serious battle could inflict. That includes, he says, Ukraine and Russia, as well as NATO member nations and even the U.S.

That in itself, he says, may be enough to prevent a full-blown cyber war over Ukraine - but only if military tensions on the ground subside. Should Ukrainian and Russian troops come to serious blows, both sides would pull out all the stops.

"A government's going to do what a government's going to do," Carr said. "Hopefully, no one is prepared to go to war over a flimsy excuse."

Looming cyber war

The Iranian financial attacks of 2012 didn't cause much damage, and although serious, were relatively limited in scope.

But they were enough to lead some to fret about the growing possibility of serious cyber-battles that would cause long-term, possibly devastating damage.

It hasn't yet happened.

However, some analysts caution that a potentially large-scale armed conflict in Ukraine could change all that. Worse, the more serious the cyber-attack, the more hidden it may be.

"Social media, government administrations and national defense systems all rely on Internet communications," says Darren Hayes, a cyber security lecturer at Pace University.

"
Cyber attacks will continue to be largely silent but potentially devastating during this conflict and could prove to be more decisive than trade sanctions or armed maneuvers," he said.

Analyst Carr sees the sorts of hacking by groups like Cyber Bekrut or Anonymous Ukraine as little more than nuisance.

"That’s an entirely lower subset of capabilities being developed by Russia in terms of attacking and shutting down infrastructure," he said.

Carr said that Russia is likely to employ a dual-pronged strategy in conflict: cutting critical services and communications in the west to isolate it from NATO and the rest of Ukraine, and blocking news in the east to flood it with bad information for a nervous populace.

And large scale cyber battles, analysts say, wouldn't be limited to the two main combatants.

Given the interconnected nature of the world today, the damage and pain could spread across Europe and around the globe.

That worries Stewart Baker, who as a former Homeland Security official, remains convinced the world - and the United States especially - is unprepared.

"I think we're really whistling past the graveyard," he said.


 

You May Like

Analysis: China Raises Hong Kong Rhetoric to Tiananmen Level

A front-page commentary in The People’s Daily called the current demonstrations 'chaos,' the same word Party officials used 25 years ago to describe the Tiananmen Square protests More

US Airstrikes Anger Syrian Civilians Fleeing Their Homes

Pentagon officials say they have seen no credible evidence of civilian deaths caused by US airstrikes against Islamic State militants More

Child Sexual Exploitation to Worsen in SE Asia

Southeast Asia’s planned economic integration is a key step for boosting the region’s productivity, but carries downsides as well More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Gennady from: Russia, Volga Region
April 20, 2014 8:54 PM
The news is two-times sad. Firstly, that Russia-Ukraine Crisis Can Trigger Cyber War. In the past sometimes cyber/cold conflicts led into “hot” shoot-outs and more sinister developments. With short spring-summer time and quick winter coming in Ukraine, any disruption will cause great suffering among population, even humanitarian catastrophe. Secondly, the admittance by Stewart Baker, a former Homeland Security official, that the world - and the United States – had been unprepared for the cyber war in Europe and in case of Ukraine came as a surprise .

In Response

by: Doug Bernard
April 21, 2014 8:43 AM
Gennady; I wish I could say his comments came as a surprise to me, too. Sadly, I don't think I've ever spoken with a security or intelligence analyst who thinks we're prepared for a serious cyber-battle.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
The Legacy of Jimmy Carter: The Preacher from Plainsi
X
October 01, 2014 10:45 AM
It is common in the United States to see tourists flock to sites associated with America's presidents. Some are privately owned and others are run by the National Park Service or the National Archives -- but most have helped draw business and people into the towns and cities where they are located. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, there is one particular presidential hometown that is unique in what it has to offer those who make the trip.
Video

Video The Legacy of Jimmy Carter: The Preacher from Plains

It is common in the United States to see tourists flock to sites associated with America's presidents. Some are privately owned and others are run by the National Park Service or the National Archives -- but most have helped draw business and people into the towns and cities where they are located. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, there is one particular presidential hometown that is unique in what it has to offer those who make the trip.
Video

Video Hong Kong Protests Draw New Supporters on National Holiday

On the 65th anniversary of the founding of Communist China, Hong Kong protesters are hoping to stage the largest pro-democracy demonstration since the 1989 Tiananmen protests. VOA's Brian Padden visited one of the protest sites mid-day, when the atmosphere was calm and where the supporters were enthusiastic about joining what they are calling the umbrella revolution.
Video

Video India's PM Continues First US Visit

India's prime minister is on his first visit to Washington, to strengthen political and economic ties between the world's oldest and the world biggest democracies. He came to the U.S. capital from New York, the first stop on his five-day visit to the country that denied him an entry visa in the past. From Washington, Zlatica Hoke reports Modi seemed most focused on attracting foreign investment and trade to increase job opportunities for his people.
Video

Video Malaysia Struggles to Stop People Joining Jihad

Malaysian authorities say militant groups like the so-called "Islamic State" have used social media to entice at least three dozen Malaysian Muslims to fight in what they call "jihad" in Syria and Iraq. As Mahi Ramkrishnan reports from Kuala Lumpur, counterterrorism police are deeply worried about what could happen when these militants return home.
Video

Video Could US Have Done More to Stop Rise of Islamic State?

President Obama says airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Syria will likely continue for some time because, in his words, "there is a cancer that has grown for too long." So what if President Obama had acted sooner in Syria to arm more-moderate opponents of both the Islamic State and the Syrian government? VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports from the United Nations.
Video

Video Treasure Hunters Seek 'Hidden Treasure' in Central Kenya

Could a cave in a small village in central Kenya be the site of buried treasure? A rumor of riches, left behind by colonialists, has some residents dreaming of wealth, while others see it as a dangerous hoax. VOA's Gabe Joselow has the story.
Video

Video Ebola Patients Find No Treatment at Sierra Leone Holding Center

At a holding facility in Makeni, central Sierra Leone, dozens of sick people sit on the floor in an empty university building. They wait in filthy conditions. It's a 16-hour drive by ambulance to Kailahun Ebola treatment center. Adam Bailes was there and reports on what he says are some of the worst situations he has seen since the beginning of this Ebola outbreak. And he says it appears case numbers may already be far worse than authorities acknowledge.
Video

Video Identifying Bodies Found in Texas Border Region

Thousands of immigrants have died after crossing the border from Mexico into remote areas of the southwestern United States in recent years. Local officials in south Texas alone have found hundreds of unidentified bodies and buried them in mass graves in local cemeteries. Now an anthropologist and her students at Baylor University have been exhuming bodies and looking for clues to identify them. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from Waco, Texas.
Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.

AppleAndroid