How a no-holds-barred Russia-Ukraine cyberwar would play out

A full-fledged cyber campaign could cause enormous collateral damage

With some opening shots in a cyber component to the war of nerves in the Ukraine already fired, security analysts today pondered what a full-fledged cyberwar in the region would look like.

"The propaganda war is already in full force," said Richard Stiennon, principal at security consulting firm IT-Harvest and a former analyst with Gartner, in an interview. "Pictures of people fleeing the Ukraine, that kind of thing, the usual stuff. But when it escalates to block access, that's when the big cyber guns will come out."

In a blog post earlier this week, Stiennon outlined how he expected the cyber aspect of the crisis between the Ukraine and Russia -- the latter's forces have seized control of the Crimea, although top level Russian officials, including President Vladimir Putin, have vigorously denied it -- to play out.

"This playbook has already been written," Stiennon wrote, referring to past cyberwar incidents in Estonia in April 2007 and Georgia in August 2008. The latter conflict escalated to a short shooting war between Russian and Georgian forces, and the essential annexation of some Georgian territory.

"If Putin sticks to his playbook, here is what can be expected about the time the shooting starts in Crimea," Stiennon added. "The 'information war' that is playing out now will escalate to website defacement and DDoS [distributed denial-of-service] attacks against government websites, new sites and prominent businesses in Ukraine. The purpose will be to silence Ukraine's side of the story during the chaos. Of the six fiber links into Ukraine, half connect to Russia. These will be cut off as they were in 2008 against Georgia."

Some of those steps have taken place, according to news reports from the area. Communications facilities in the Crimea have been seized and physically damaged, with reports claiming that the peninsular has been virtually cut off from the rest of the world's Internet. Ukrainian government officials' mobile phones have been attacked for snooping purposes, and both Ukrainian and Russian news sites have been defaced.

None of the moves thus far have equaled the attacks in the Estonian and Georgian conflicts, but Stiennon predicted they would surpass that pair of events if Russia moves military forces into the eastern Ukraine, or if open warfare erupts in the Crimea.

Initial cyber attacks, like those already happening, have historically been the purview of so-called "hacktivists," ad hoc groups of hackers, and the technological-astute and technological-ignorant from both sides. DDoS attacks, although crude and relying on brute force to take down websites, can be easily organized and conducted with free tools.

"Governments have no monopoly on these kinds of attacks," said John Pescatore, also formerly with Gartner but now director of emerging security trends at the SANS Institute, a security training organization.

Although hacktivists are not officially affiliated with a specific government -- they can be populated with what Pescatore called "annoyed citizens" -- that doesn't mean there's no connection between those who launched the first wave of cyber attacks in Estonia, Georgia and apparently the Ukraine and Russia recently, and a government.

"Every intelligence agency from time immemorial has tried to influence rebel groups," said Pescatore. "Nation states have seeded hacktivist groups with technology and know-how just like they have backed rebels with money and guns."

Hacktivists also give governments plausible deniability, Stiennon noted. "They provide cover," he said. "All of us will be reporting these things."

Meanwhile, Russia will be able to launch more sophisticated cyber attacks to isolate the Ukraine. Pescatore compared hacktivist attacks to a "softening up" phase in open battle, when airpower degrades an opponent's ability to communicate with its forces, and bombs those forces directly.

Russian military doctrine, like that of any modern nation state, is to prepare the ground for battle by disrupting an adversary's communications, including Internet-based civilian communications so that opposition leaders cannot effectively inform the citizenry.

If a shooting war erupted, either because of a larger Russian incursion into eastern Ukraine under the pretext of protecting ethnic Russians and pro-Russian Ukrainians, or because of open battle in the Crimea between Ukrainian and Russian units, the cyberwar will heat up correspondingly, said the experts.

Pescatore expects that Russia would try to stifle social media, both domestically and in the Ukraine, to sow confusion and make it difficult -- if not impossible -- for citizens to figure out what was really happening. "This is a standard government response," said Pescatore, of authoritarian regimes, citing examples from Iran and Egypt to Syria and Georgia.

Stiennon envisioned targeted attacks against Ukrainian telecom and power grids using malware, routing diversions and DDoS attacks, along with high-powered cyber assaults against Ukrainian radar and anti-aircraft targeting systems, if the crisis escalates to military blows.

"If Russia invades eastern Ukraine, it will have to go all out, because defeat would be unacceptable," said Stiennon. "They have demonstrated their ability to take out radar and targeting systems."

Those facilities and systems are left-overs from the days when the Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, and so familiar to the Russians (as well as to countries, like the U.S., who long opposed the U.S.S.R).

"Cyber attacks against Ukraine's defensive missile guidance and targeting radar systems should not come as a surprise," Stiennon said. "Russia has to be worried about Ukrainian hackers, but they'd be willing to accept that during an incursion."

According to Renesys, a U.S. Internet monitoring and intelligence firm, it would be very difficult for anyone, including Russia, to completely isolate Ukraine from the global Internet. "Our model predicts that the chances of a successful single-event Internet shutdown are extremely low," said Renesys in a Feb. 26 blog post, referring to Ukraine.

Pescatore was more skeptical than Stiennon that a full-scale cyberattack would be launched, even if Russian troops took on Ukrainian military forces. The risk, he said, would be in-kind retaliation. "They would have the same problem defending against cyberattacks as the West. You can't really defend against people clicking on dangerous stuff," Pescatore said.

Instead, he thought that major powers might treat open cyberwarfare with the same MAD (mutual assured destruction) doctrine of deterrence as they have nuclear weapons, and chemical and biological attacks, when neither side -- the U.S.-backed coalition and that lead by the Soviet Union -- dared to strike because of massive retaliation.

"There could be enormous collateral damage," said Pescatore of such a war, if opponents deployed already-crafted worms to disrupt or destroy Internet-connected targets. As the Stuxnet worm showed, unintended targets could be affected.

If a widespread and open cyberwar broke out in the Ukraine-Russia conflict, Stiennon bet that the U.S. and its allies would not intervene with their own cyber capabilities, not wanting to lose strike capabilities unless events took an even more ominous turn, such as if NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) became involved because tripwires had been triggered along the borders of Ukraine, Russia and Russia's partner Belarus.

NATO countries along those borders include the Baltic nations of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia; Hungary; Poland; Romania; and Slovakia. NATO met Tuesday after Poland cited Article 4, which states that "the parties will consult whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence, or security of any of the parties is threatened."

"If NATO got into a shooting war, than at that point...." said Stiennon, pausing, "we wouldn't be talking about [cyberwarfare]."

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

Read more about cyberwarfare in Computerworld's Cyberwarfare Topic Center.

This story, "How a no-holds-barred Russia-Ukraine cyberwar would play out" was originally published by Computerworld.

What’s wrong? The new clean desk test
Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies