How a Russian cyberwar in Ukraine could ripple out globally
The knock-on effects for the rest of the world might not be limited to intentional reprisals by Russian operatives. Unlike old-fashioned war, cyberwar is not confined by borders and can more easily spiral out of control.
Ukraine has been on the receiving end of aggressive Russian cyber operations for the last decade and has suffered invasion and military intervention from Moscow since 2014. In 2015 and 2016, Russian hackers attacked Ukraine’s power grid and turned out the lights in the capital city of Kyiv— unparalleled acts that haven’t been carried out anywhere else before or since.
The 2017 NotPetya cyberattack, once again ordered by Moscow, was directed initially at Ukrainian private companies before it spilled over and destroyed systems around the world.
NotPetya masqueraded as ransomware, but in fact it was a purely destructive and highly viral piece of code. The destructive malware seen in Ukraine last week, now known as WhisperGate, also pretended to be ransomware while aiming to destroy key data that renders machines inoperable. Experts say WhisperGate is “reminiscent” of NotPetya, down to the technical processes that achieve destruction, but that there are notable differences. For one, WhisperGate is less sophisticated and is not designed to spread rapidly in the same way. Russia has denied involvement, and no definitive link points to Moscow.
NotPetya incapacitated shipping ports and left several giant multinational corporations and government agencies unable to function. Almost anyone who did business with Ukraine was affected because the Russians secretly poisoned software used by everyone who pays taxes or does business in the country.
The White House said the attack caused more than $10 billion in global damage and deemed it “the most destructive and costly cyberattack in history.”
Since 2017, there has been ongoing debate about whether the international victims were merely unintentional collateral damage or whether the attack targeted companies doing business with Russia’s enemies. What is clear is that it can happen again.
Accident or not, Hultquist anticipates that we will see cyber operations from Russia’s military intelligence agency GRU, the organization behind many of the most aggressive hacks of all time, both inside and outside Ukraine. The GRU’s most notorious hacking group, dubbed Sandworm by experts, is responsible for a long list of greatest hits including the 2015 Ukrainian power grid hack, the 2017 NotPetya hacks, interference in US and French elections, and the Olympics opening ceremony hack in the wake of a Russian doping controversy that left the country excluded from the games.
Hultquist is also looking out for another group, known to experts as Berserk Bear, that originates from the Russian intelligence agency FSB. In 2020, US officials warned of the threat the group poses to government networks. The German government said the same group had achieved “longstanding compromises” at companies as they targeted energy, water, and power sectors.