An army of Ukrainian computer experts and hackers is driving the Kremlin crazy with cyber attacks
An army of volunteers is driving the Kremlin crazy. Some work in coordination with the Ukrainian government, which two days after the invasion began called on the country’s “digital talents” to join the cyber resistance. Others go on their own and follow no guidelines other than those they themselves establish through Telegram in various groups also nurtured with foreign volunteers. The most numerous have up to 70,000 members. And then there are the heavyweights of the stateless sector known as Anonymous, which was quick to declare “cyberwar” on Putin after he announced his “special military operation.”
They like to think of themselves as cyber-cossacks, who also fought centuries ago against Russia to defend our freedom, invoking one of the symbols of Ukrainian nationalism.
In the local imagination the old Cossacks are the equivalent of the cowboys of the American West and the embryo of the Ukrainian nation, even if not all Cossacks were Ukrainians and not all Ukrainians were Cossacks. But it is true that for centuries they tried to maintain their autonomy from the Polish monarchy in the west and the Russian monarchy in the east, usually in exchange for their services on the battlefield. Until the Tsarist empire of the Romanovs, with Catherine the Great as one of its great bête noires, swept them away in the 18th century.
It is difficult to gauge the damage that the Ukrainian digital offensive is causing in Russia, but everything suggests that it is significant. Just this Tuesday its Foreign Ministry acknowledged that the barrage of attacks against its country is “unprecedented” and accused Ukrainian “cyber-mercenaries” of being trained by the United States and other NATO countries. “No one should doubt that the cyber-aggression launched against Russia will lead to serious consequences,” he assured according to Tass agency.
Some actions have been really spectacular, like the one at the beginning of the conflict in which Anonymous interrupted in unison the programming of several Russian public television stations to broadcast images of bombings over Ukraine and soldiers talking about the horrors of war. An action that has been accompanied by massive leaks of data from Russian institutions. On a smaller scale, something similar has been done by cyber-soldiers or groups organized under the umbrella of the Ukrainian Ministry of Digital Transition.
They are not only taking down websites with denial of service attacks, but also hacking all kinds of websites to publish information about the war. One example is the website of the tour operator IgoToWorld.com, which went from advertising tourist destinations to publishing a long message that began as follows: “Citizens of Russia and Belarus: Wake up! Your governments are committing war crimes in Ukraine.”
Many are surprised at how easily Russia is being attacked, but also at how little it has achieved with its cyber weapons, when it was supposed to be a major power in that field. To begin with, experts expected it to neutralize Ukrainian telecommunications, its electrical system or its infrastructures at the drop of a hat, but, except in the most heavily bombed areas, everything is still functioning surprisingly normally.
Indeed, the Russian Army has experienced some truly embarrassing episodes. The death of its General Vitali Gerasimov, fallen outside Kharkov, became known because the Ukrainians intercepted a call between two alleged Russian FBU agents through a normal phone, like the ones anyone uses. And they intercepted it because their military’s cool cryptophones, introduced in 2021 to great fanfare, didn’t work. And why didn’t they work? Because the Russians themselves bombed many of the 3G and 4G towers in the area that require those encrypted phones.
That caricature of Russian power, very evident in other areas of this war as well, has also surprised many analysts. They sell the image that they are very prepared, that they are the best, but in view of the facts it is rather the opposite.