Russian government hackers have launched multiple cyber operations against Ukraine that appear to support Moscow’s military offensive and online propaganda campaign, Microsoft said in a report on Wednesday.
Reported intrusions – some of which have not been made public before – suggest that hacking has played a bigger role in the conflict than is known to the public.
The digital attack, which Microsoft said began a year before Russia’s February 24 attack, laid the groundwork for various military missions in the war-torn region, researchers have found.
Between February 23 and April 8, Microsoft said it had monitored a total of 37 Russian destructive cyber attacks inside Ukraine.
The Russian embassy in Washington did not immediately return a request for comment.
Experts say research shows how modern warfare can combine digital and dynamic strikes.
“Russian generals and spies have tried to make cyber-attacks part of their war effort while fighting on the battlefield,” said Thomas Reid, a professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitz School of Advanced International Studies.
Microsoft says Russia’s hacking and military operations have “worked against a shared goal set.” The technology company said it could not determine whether the relationship was driven by integrated decision-making or simply because of shared goals.
For example, a timeline published by Microsoft shows that on March 1 – the same day a Russian missile was fired at a TV tower in Kiev – media outlets in the capital were damaged by destructive hacks and cyber espionage.
In another case, the company’s cybersecurity research team recorded “suspicious Russian actors” hiding in Ukraine’s critical infrastructure in the northeastern city of Sumi on March 3, two weeks before a massive power outage in the area.
The next day, Microsoft reported that Russian hackers had entered an official network in the central Ukrainian city of Vinnitsia. Two days later, the missile landed at the city airport.
Victor Zhora, a top cyber security official in Ukraine, said on Wednesday that he had seen Russian cyber attacks on local telecom companies and energy grid operators.
“I believe they can organize more attacks in these sectors,” Mr Zora told reporters. “We should not underestimate Russian hackers, but we should probably not underestimate their potential.”
He thanked Microsoft, the US government and several European allies for their cyber security assistance.
Since the start of the war, academics and analysts have said that Russia appears to be less active in the cyber domain against Ukraine than expected. The Microsoft report highlights the impact of malicious cyber activity, although in most cases its effects are unclear or not immediately apparent.
Two weeks ago, the U.S. government unveiled a cyber weapon, known as the PipDream, which was designed to undermine the industrial control system. Although the tool was not blamed on Russia, it was seen as extremely dangerous and its discovery coincided with the Ukraine conflict. – Rafael Satter, Christopher Bing and James Pearson / Reuters