News / Europe

Russia-Ukraine Crisis Could Trigger Cyber War

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.


 

Doug Bernard

dbjohnson+voanews.com

Doug Bernard covers cyber-issues for VOA, focusing on Internet privacy, security and censorship circumvention. Previously he edited VOA’s “Digital Frontiers” blog, produced the “Daily Download” webcast and hosted “Talk to America”, for which he won the International Presenter of the Year award from the Association for International Broadcasting. He began his career at Michigan Public Radio, and has contributed to "The New York Times," the "Christian Science Monitor," SPIN and NPR, among others. You can follow him @dfrontiers.

You May Like

Photogallery WHO Expects Ebola Vaccine Surge in 2015

Official says ‘a few hundred thousand doses’ could be ready by June; 2 drugs already in trial More

Video Islamic State Militants Advance Toward Baghdad

Iraqi capital not under ‘imminent threat,’ US military says, amid worries about foothold More

Video Hong Kong Protesters Focused on Holding Ground in Volatile Mong Kok

Activists say holding Mong Kok is key to the success of their movement, despite confrontations with angry residents, anti-protest groups and police 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.
After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rulesi
X
October 21, 2014 12:20 AM
European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rules

European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video Kobani Refugees Welcome, Turkey Criticizes, US Airdrop

Residents of Kobani in northern Syria have welcomed the airdrop of weapons, ammunition and medicine to Kurdish militia who are resisting the seizure of their city by Islamic State militants. The Turkish government, however, has criticized the operation. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from southeastern Turkey, across the border from Kobani.
Video

Video China Political Meeting Seeks to Improve Rule of Law

China’s communist leaders will host a top level political meeting this week, called the Fourth Plenum, and for the first time in the party’s history, rule of law will be a key item on the agenda. Analysts and Chinese media reports say the meetings could see the approval of long-awaited measures aimed at giving courts more independence and include steps to enhance an already aggressive and high-reaching anti-corruption drive. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video US ‘Death Cafes’ Put Focus on the Finale

In contemporary America, death usually is a topic to be avoided. But the growing “death café” movement encourages people to discuss their fears and desires about their final moments. VOA’s Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Ebola Orphanage Opens in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone's first Ebola orphanage has opened in the Kailahun district. Hundreds of children orphaned since the beginning of the Ebola outbreak face stigma and rejection with nobody to care for them. Adam Bailes reports for VOA about a new interim care center that's aimed at helping the growing number of children affected by Ebola.
Video

Video Young Nairobi Tech Innovator on 'Track' in Security Business

A 24-year-old technology innovator in Nairobi has invented a tracking device that monitors and secures cars. He has also come up with what he claims is the most robust audio-visual surveillance system yet. As Lenny Ruvaga reports from the Kenyan capital, his innovations are offering alternative security solutions.
Video

Video Latinas Converting to Islam for Identity, Structure

Latinos are one of the fastest growing groups in the Muslim religion. According to the Pew Research Center, about 6 percent of American Muslims are Latino. And a little more than half of new converts are female. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti travelled to Miami, Florida -- where two out of every three residents is Hispanic -- to learn more.
Video

Video Exclusive: American Joins Kurds' Anti-IS Fight

The United States and other Western nations have expressed alarm about their citizens joining Islamic State forces in Syria and Iraq. In a rare counterpoint to the phenomenon, an American has taken up arms with the militants' Syrian Kurdish opponents. Elizabeth Arrott has more in this exclusive profile by VOA Kurdish reporter Zana Omer in Ras al Ayn, Syria.
Video

Video South Korea Confronts Violence Within Military Ranks

Every able-bodied South Korean male between 18 and 35 must serve for 21 to 36 months in the country’s armed forces, depending upon the specific branch. For many, service is a rite of passage to manhood. But there are growing concerns that bullying and violence come along with the tradition. Reporter Jason Strother has more from Seoul.
Video

Video North Carolina Emerges as Key Election Battleground

U.S. congressional midterm elections will be held on November 4th and most political analysts give Republicans an excellent chance to win a majority in the U.S. Senate, which Democrats now control. So what are the issues driving voters in this congressional election year? VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone traveled to North Carolina, one of the most politically competitive states in the country, to find out.
Video

Video Comanche People Maintain Pride in Their Heritage

The Comanche (Indian nation) once were called the “Lords of the Plains,” with an empire that included half the land area of current day Texas, large parts of Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas and Colorado.The fierceness and battle prowess of these warriors on horseback delayed the settlement of most of West Texas for four decades. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Lawton, Oklahoma, that while their warrior days are over, the 15,000 members of the Comanche Nation remain a proud people.
Video

Video Turkey Campus Attacks Raise Islamic Radicalization Fears

Concerns are growing in Turkey of Islamic radicalization at some universities, after clashes between supporters of the jihadist group Islamic State (IS) or ISIS, and those opposed to the extremists. Pro-jihadist literature is on sale openly on the streets of Istanbul. Critics accuse the government of turning a blind eye to radicalism at home, while Kurds accuse the president of supporting IS - a charge strongly denied. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

All About America

AppleAndroid