Russia’s cyberwar against Ukraine is every bit as strategic as its ground offensive

Just flexing his muscles.
Just flexing his muscles.
Image: AP Photo/Martin Meissner
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The head of Ukraine’s security service says that the mobile phones of Ukrainian lawmakers are under attack by equipment located in Russian-controlled Crimea. That’s not terribly surprising, but the limited scope of the attack is.

In the past—Estonia in 2007, Georgia in 2008—Russian cyber attacks have taken the form of massive “denial of service” campaigns. This time, Russian forces are doing it the old-fashioned way, commandeering physical infrastructure. According to Ukrtelecom, some “key telecom nodes of the company in the Crimea were repeatedly blocked by unidentified uniformed people” on March 1.

The previous day, Ukrtelecom said, “unknown people seized several telecom nodes in the Crimea” and damaged its fiber backbone cable: “As a result, there are almost no services of fixed telephony, internet access, and mobile communications TriMob [Ukrtelecom mobile arm] provided in the territory of the Crimea.”

According to Telegeography, the network has 1 million mobile subscribers. Still, remote attacks on Ukraine seem to be few and far between, with only sporadic incidents in the past few weeks, according to Google’s Digital Attack Map:

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Why the caution? One suggestion is that Russia maybe wary of retaliation from Ukraine, which has equally well-trained and sophisticated cyber-warriors. Moreover, only half of the six fiber links into Ukraine come from Russia, notes Richard Steinnon, a cyber-security expert. Even if Russia were to cut these off, which Steinnon thinks it will, that would achieve only limited disruption compared to the 70% it was able to control in Georgia in 2008. 

But perhaps Russia’s ambitions are more limited. Jason Rivera,  a US Army officer currently assigned to the United States Army Cyber Command, points out that the Crimea has its own internet exchange point, which is a hub for routing online traffic. “If this IXP were severely limited or shut down, which may have already happened, the Crimean Peninsula would be completely isolated, allowing Russia to control internet activity in Crimea,” he writes.

Maybe that is all that Russia wants.