Russia launched cyber attacks against Ukraine before ship seizures

The new Art of War?

Researchers claim to have uncovered Russian cyber-attacks aimed at the Ukrainian military and government before and during the Sea of Azov captures.

Russian government-affiliated actors launched coordinated cyber attacks against Ukrainian government and military targets before and during the attack and seizure of Ukrainian ships and sailors on November 25, a private intelligence firm announced this week. The attacks appeared to be aimed at stealing information that would have been relevant to planning the operation, according to Stealthcare, a cyber threat intelligence group. If so, the revelation challenges Russia’s already widely-disputed claim that Ukraine initiated the crisis.

Russia has a long history of timing cyber attacks to offensive operations, going back to Georgia in 2008. Russian cyber attacks have featured heavily in the Ukraine conflict, most significantly knocking out power on Christmas Eve 2015 for thousands of Ukrainians.

This autumn, Stealthcare first observed a Russian state-baked entity known as the Carbanak group develop a new phishing campaign, using deceptive emails to convince targets to click links and download malware around Oct. 25. The targets were government agencies in Ukraine and across Eastern Europe, according to CEO Jeremy Samide. Attached to the emails were PDFs with links and other pieces of code that, when executed, would allow the attacker to steal or exfiltrate data and gain control over important computer functions. While Samide said he couldn’t say which government entities were targeted, because of sensitivities surrounding the target, he said they would have had information related to Ukrainian foreign and naval affairs, information that would have been very useful if you wanted to engineer a maritime crisis. Samide says there is “no doubt” that this was a Kremlin-led reconnaissance effort to prepare for the Kerch Strait crisis.

A separate Russian actor tied to the Russian FSB, called the Gamaredon Group, targeted Ukrainian government agencies with a backdoor attack called Pterodo, tailored to Windows, a few days before Nov. 20, when Stealthcare first reported seeing it.

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