Russia uses cyberattacks in Ukraine to support military strikes, report says

WASHINGTON — For weeks after the outbreak of war in Ukraine, U.S. officials pondered the weapon that seemed to be missing: Russia’s migh...


WASHINGTON — For weeks after the outbreak of war in Ukraine, U.S. officials pondered the weapon that seemed to be missing: Russia’s mighty cyberarsenal, which most experts expected would be used in opening hours of an invasion to bring down Ukraine’s power grid, fry its mobile phone system, and cut President Volodymyr Zelensky off from the world.

None of this happened. But in new research published Wednesday by Microsoft, it is now clear that Russia used its A-team of hackers to carry out hundreds of much more subtle attacks, often timed to coincide with incoming missiles or ground attacks. And it turned out that, just like in the ground war, the Russians were less skilled and the Ukrainians were better defenders than most experts expected.

“They put in destructive efforts, they put in espionage efforts, they got all of their best players to focus on that,” said Tom Burt, who oversees Microsoft’s investigations into the most significant cyberattacks and the most complex visible on its global networks. But he also noted that although “they had some success”, the Russians came up against strong defense from the Ukrainians who blocked some of the line attacks.

The report adds considerable subtlety to understanding the early days of the war, when bombing and troop movements were evident, but cyber operations were less visible – and harder to blame, at least for the time being, on major agencies Russian intelligence.

But it is now becoming clear that Russia has used hacking campaigns to support its ground campaign in Ukraine, pairing malware with missiles in several attacks, including against TV stations and government agencies, according to Microsoft research. . The report demonstrates Russia’s persistent use of cyberweapons, upending early analyzes that suggested it had not played a leading role in the conflict.

“It was relentless cyber warfare that paralleled, and in some cases directly supported, kinetic warfare,” Burt said. Russian-affiliated hackers had been carrying out cyberattacks “daily, 24/7, for hours before the physical invasion began”, he added.

Microsoft could not determine whether the Russian hackers and its troops were simply given similar goals to pursue or actively coordinated their efforts. But Russian cyberattacks often strike days — and sometimes hours — after an activity on the ground.

From the weeks leading up to the invasion through March, at least six Russian nation-state hacking groups launched more than 237 operations against Ukrainian businesses and government agencies, Microsoft said in its report. The attacks often aimed to destroy computer systems, but some also aimed to gather intelligence or disseminate misinformation.

Although Russia has regularly relied on malware, espionage and disinformation to advance its agenda in Ukraine, it appears that Moscow was trying to limit its hacking campaigns to stay within Ukraine’s borders. , Microsoft said, perhaps in an effort to avoid dragging NATO countries into the conflict.

The attacks were sophisticated, with Russian hackers often making small changes to the malware they were using in an effort to evade detection.

“It’s definitely the A team,” Burt said. “It’s basically all the key players in the nation-state.”

Still, Ukrainian defenders were able to thwart some of the attacks, having become accustomed to fending off Russian hackers after years of online intrusions in Ukraine. At a press conference on Wednesday, Ukrainian officials said they believed Russia had put all of its cyber capabilities at the service of the country. Still, Ukraine managed to repel many attacks, they added.

Microsoft detailed several attacks that appeared to show parallel cyber activity and ground activity.

On March 1, Russian cyberattacks hit media companies in Kyiv, including a major broadcast network, using malware aimed at destroying computer systems and stealing information, Microsoft said. On the same day, missiles destroyed a television tower in kyiv, cutting some stations off the air.

The incident demonstrated Russia’s interest in controlling the flow of information into Ukraine during the invasion, Microsoft said.

A group affiliated with the GRU, a Russian military intelligence agency, hacked into a government agency’s network in Vinnytsia, a town southwest of kyiv, on March 4. The group, which was previously linked to stealing emails related to the 2016 presidential election from the Hillary Clinton campaign, has carried out phishing attacks against military officials and regional government employees in an attempt to steal the passwords to their online accounts.

Hacking attempts have been a pivot for the group, which typically focuses its efforts on national offices rather than regional governments, Microsoft said.

Two days after the phishing attempts, Russian missiles hit an airport in Vinnytsia, damage to air traffic control towers and an aircraft. The airport was not near any ground combat zones at the time, but there was a Ukrainian military presence.

Hackers and Russian troops appeared to be acting in concert again on March 11, when a government agency in Dnipro was targeted by destructive malware, Microsoft said, while government buildings in Dnipro were hit by strikes .

Parallels have also emerged between Russian disinformation campaigns spreading false rumors that Ukraine is developing biological weapons and the targeting of nuclear facilities in Ukraine. In early March, Russian troops captured the Zaporizhzhia nuclear facility, the largest nuclear power plant in Europe. During the same period, Russian hackers worked to steal data from nuclear power organizations and research institutes in Ukraine that could be used to further disinformation narratives, Microsoft said.

One of the groups, which is affiliated with the Russian Federal Security Service and used to targeting companies in the energy, aviation and defense sectors, was able to steal data from a Ukrainian organization of nuclear security between December and mid-March, Microsoft said.

At the end of March, Russian hackers began to focus on eastern Ukraine, as the Russian military began to reorganize its troops there. Little is known about the Russian-backed hacking campaigns that took place in April, while investigations into many of these episodes continue.

“The Ukrainians themselves have been better defenders than expected, and I think that’s true on both sides of this Hybrid War,” Burt said. “They’ve done a good job, both defending against cyberattacks and recovering when they succeed.”

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Newsrust - US Top News: Russia uses cyberattacks in Ukraine to support military strikes, report says
Russia uses cyberattacks in Ukraine to support military strikes, report says
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