By Jeff Seldin
Ukraine is bracing for a new wave of Russian cyberattacks likely aimed at freezing its citizens in coming months and crippling its spending power.
The attacks, according to an assessment shared Friday by a top Ukrainian cyber official, are expected to include precision cyber strikes, combining virtual efforts against key systems with physical action targeting critical infrastructure as winter approaches.
“We saw this scenario before,” Deputy Minister of Digital Transformation Georgii Dubynskyi told reporters on the sidelines of a cybersecurity conference in Washington.
“They [Russia] are trying to find a way how to undermine, how to defeat our energy system and how to make circumstances even more severe for Ukrainians,” he said. “We are preparing.”
Dubynskyi is not the first Ukrainian official to sound alarms about Russia’s efforts in cyberspace.
A number of Ukraine officials have described the war with Russia as the world’s first cyber war.
And in August, Victor Zhora, the deputy head of Ukraine’s State Special Communications Service, told an online conference that the pace of the Kremlin cyberattacks was relentless.
“We continue registering new cyber incidents almost every day,” said Zhora at the time, estimating there have been at least 1,600 major incidents since the start of the year.
Moscow has consistently denied involvement in offensive cyberattacks, including some that targeted Ukraine on the eve of the Russian invasion.
A report issued Thursday by the U.S.-based cybersecurity firm Check Point Software found that since February, cyberattacks on Ukrainian government and military websites “more than doubled, increasing by a staggering 112%.”
It also found that corporate networks in Ukraine are being hit by more than 1,500 attacks each week, an increase of 25% since the war began.
Check Point’s researchers believe there is more reason to worry.
“For the first time, we’ve also seen coordination between cyberattacks and kinetic, military assaults,” the report said, citing a March 1, 2022, Russian missile attack on a television transmission tower in Kyiv that was accompanied by a cyberattack designed to knock out all of the city’s broadcasting capabilities.
Dubynskyi on Friday warned that Russia is actively developing various types of malware that he described as cyberweapons, for use in Ukraine and maybe even beyond.
“We cannot compare it with nuclear weapons, but the effectiveness of that is enough,” he said.
Making matters worse, Dubynskyi alleged Russia has help on the inside.
“They are developing classical operations, using not only cyber, not only software, also using some human resources,” he said. “Using some traitors.”
Ukrainian officials say they are working to root out any spies and are focused on integrating cybersecurity officials — trained on what to do in the case of a severe cyberattack — into regional and local governments.
They also say they are getting considerable help from the U.S. and other Western allies, though there are ongoing requests for more aid and more training.
Despite the concern expressed by some Ukrainian officials, not all experts see Russia’s cyber exploits during the war as insurmountable.
“Some of the things they’ve done … was impactful,” said Dmitri Alperovitch, the founder of the Silverado Policy Accelerator and the former chief technology officer of cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike, at the Billington CyberSecurity Summit on Friday.
“But they have tried a lot of stuff and clearly much of it is not working because of the resilience and the preparation that was taking place [in Ukraine],” he said.
And Ukraine believes the Kremlin’s efforts to recruit and use cyber gangs or hackers for hire may also be suffering because of Russia’s military setbacks on the battlefield.
“We believe that many of them are scared and that many of them are scared [of] what is going on in Russia,” Dubynskyi said, citing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s propensity to rule with an increasingly iron fist.
“For hackers and IT experts, freedom is one of the dimensions of their existence,” he said. “This atmosphere also is not productive, neither for IT experts nor even for hackers.”