Does Russia's attack on Ukraine reveal the future of war?

Russia is preempting the Ukrainian response and targeting individuals via cyberattacks and ransomware, and showcasing a new form of war on a global stage.

Does Russia's attack on Ukraine reveal the future of war?

Friday February 25, 2022,

4 min Read

Russia's invasion of Ukraine this week has shocked the world. The stock markets have crashed, the UN speeches have been delivered, and retaliatory threats have been made.

While the focus remains on the physical invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces and their attacks on Ukrainian civilians and military, their use of cyberwarfare has been unprecedented on a global stage like this.

Russia's history with cyberwarfare

After Russia had to withdraw from Georgia in 2008, another country that Moscow sees as a rightful part of its national security, President Vladimir Putin ordered a modernisation of Russia's military, including cyber strategies.

Ever since Russia first invaded Ukraine in 2014, the Eastern European country has become a testing ground for Russia's cyber capacities.

In 2015, a cyberattack knocked out the power grid and left more than 225,000 Ukrainians without power. In 2017, Russia's deadly NotPetya attack wiped out not only multiple Ukrainian facilities, but also spread across the world taking down multiple MNCs and even Russia's own state oil company, Rosneft.

Escalation against Ukraine

In the month leading up to the physical invasion, Russia has also launched multiple cyber attacks. In particular, Russia seems to be launching increasingly deadly variants of two strategies -- DDoS attacks and 'Wiper' attacks.

Distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks affect a website by flooding it with huge amounts of requests until it crashes. Wiper attacks infect computers and start 'wiping' information from them. When targeted at important institutions, these attacks can cripple Ukraine's response to the Russian invasion.

According to Ukraine, in January, Russia launched its first wave of these attacks. Some websites were just replaced with the warning to Ukrainian citizens to "prepare for the worst." Access to most websites were restored in hours.

Last week, as tensions increased between the two countries, a similar attack of increased sophistication took another set of Ukrainian websites down. While cybersecurity experts in the US and the UK accused Russia of the attacks, Moscow denied the allegations. No official blame was levelled at them.

Finally, on Wednesday, as Russia's invasion began, a number of Ukrainian governmental organisations and banks were badly hit by both the DDoS and Wiper attacks. First reported by NetBlocks on Twitter, this included attacks on Ukraine's "Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Security Service of Ukraine and Cabinet of Ministers websites."

A chilling alternate use of cyberwarfare was also mentioned on Twitter. Apparently, Russian forces have been intercepting mobile usage of those Ukrainians near the battle front. Thus, by just amplifying the voices of important Ukrainian voices, international journalists may be helping the Russian army target Ukrainians with their artillery.

In an alternate, but still important, use of technology, a New York Times article said that Russia might be able to use cryptocurrency and ransomware to get around the sanctions that are being placed on it by other countries.

The Ukrainian response

In response to their crippled infrastructure and impending defeat, the Ukrainian government has been reaching out to private hackers.

Speaking to Reuters, Yegor Aushev, Co-founder of cybersecurity firm Cyber Unit Technologies, said, he uploaded a recruitment poster for hackers at the behest of the Defence Ministry.

Their hope is that they can divide these volunteer hackers into offensive and defensive units. The former will attempt to conduct digital espionage against the invading forces, while the latter will attempt to defend important infrastructure like power plants.

Additionally, many Ukrainians seem to be shifting to the Signal mobile app, which is known for its security features.

The American response

Apart from the sanctions, the NBC reported that American president Joe Biden has also been given a wide range of cyberwarfare options to retaliate against Russia. Options include everything from disrupting Internet connectivity, shutting off electricity, and tampering with railroad switches to hamper Russia's ability to supply their invading forces.

“You could do everything from slowing the trains down to have them fall off the tracks,” a person briefed on the matter.

The most significant use of American cyberwarfare were probably their devastating Stuxnet attacks on the Iranian nuclear program from 2007 to 2010 that forced Tehran to eventually come to the negotiating table.

Meanwhile, American cybersecurity stocks seem to be the outliers flourishing during the global stock crash. Telos was up more than 20 percent, while others like Crowdstrike and Mendicant were up at least 12 percent at close on Thursday.

An American official had sobering news for those who think that America can cause a quick turnaround without inciting war with Russia. Talking to NBC, he said, "Anything we can do to them, they can do to us."

Edited by Megha Reddy