On February 24, 2022, Russian military forces began an all-out assault against Ukraine. However, even before that fateful day, Ukraine faced a continual barrage of cyberattacks, which many believe came from Russian-backed hackers. In response, cybersecurity experts, online activists, and government organizations banded together to strengthen Ukraine’s cyber defenses.
For more than half a decade, Russia has been backing rebel groups in a proxy war against Ukraine. Tensions rose dramatically in recent years, however, when Russian armed forces began to build up unprecedented numbers on the Ukrainian border.
Eventually, under the manufactured pretext of protecting rebel states in east Ukraine from genocide (a claim which appears to have no factual basis), Russia invaded. The move has been condemned by countries across the world.
Russia has a track record of using cyberattacks to disrupt and intimidate opponents, and they seem to have been employing similar tactics in the lead-up to the war. Ukrainian websites were defaced with threatening messages, and unusual forms of malware were deployed against government networks.
Governments across Europe and the world are now targeting Russia with sanctions, and supplying Ukraine with humanitarian and military aid. However, a less-reported aspect of the international response is the work of the tech and cybersecurity community.
Nato has been working with Ukraine for several years to strengthen their cyber defenses, but they’ve ramped up their efforts in 2022. In the same spirit, the European Union recently deployed a cyber rapid-response team (CRRT) — the first time the EU’s CRRT initiative has been used. This team, led by Lithuania, brings together cybersecurity experts from Poland, The Netherlands, Estonia, Romania, and Croatia.
Government agencies across Western Europe and beyond have been assisting Ukraine in its cybersecurity efforts, but it’s not just governmental bodies that are getting involved.
Romania’s national cybersecurity agency recently partnered with Bitdefender, a digital security company, to offer support to Ukrainian authorities. But this is just one example of the many private corporations getting involved in efforts to defend Ukraine.
Microsoft has been a major player in the response, helping to identify malware and update their systems to protect Ukrainians — and other users — from emerging online threats.
They stand alongside numerous European cybersecurity companies in their efforts to identify and defend against Russian cyberattacks.
While large corporate entities and government bodies do what they can to protect Ukraine in cyberspace, a growing number of independent cybersecurity experts and hackers are volunteering their services to the same end.
The Ukrainian government, which has previously asked for volunteers to come forward to join a so-called “IT Army”, claims that 400,000 people are now involved in this effort. On the private communications app Telegram, a channel set up to organize this movement has more than a quarter of a million members.
It’s a striking display of unity. International collectives like Nato and the EU are working alongside corporate giants to defend Ukraine, while armies of volunteers and hackers attempt to disrupt Russian networks.
This sends a powerful message to Russia, but why exactly is all this necessary?
Strong cyber defenses are essential because cyber warfare is a very real threat. A successful cyberattack has the potential to do enormous damage to countries and individual citizens alike.
Hackers can disrupt power grids, cause major mechanical malfunctions, and disrupt communication networks. Without adequate protection, a country could be plunged into chaos by a series of targeted cyberattacks on infrastructure and news-sharing platforms. Attacks against energy systems and healthcare organizations can literally take lives.
While war continues to rage on the ground, invisible battles are playing out across cyberspace. For Ukraine, and for any other country that might be threatened by Russia, a strong cyber defense has never been more important.
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