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Hybrid war began before Russian invasion

February 25, 2022

Russia has already been using weapons like malware and disinformation against Ukraine for eight years. Shortly after the invasion, security experts discovered cyberattacks designed to disable Ukrainian computers.

Ukraine Kiew Anwohner am Unabhängigkeitsplatz

Along with the deadly tanks, shells and missiles targeting Ukraine, comes disinformation and cyber-attacks. It is clear that Russia is attacking Ukraine at all levels.

On February 23, the eve of the first Russian missile strikes on Ukraine, international cyber-security researchers at security company ESET had already registered cyber-attacks on numerous computers in Ukraine.

The company discovered what is known as a "wiper" attack. The goal of this kind of malware is to wipe out, or erase, the entire hard drive of an infected computer. It has no other purpose than to make the computer inoperable.

Details attached to the software, which was later nicknamed HermeticWiper by researchers working on it, indicated the attack was likely prepared around two months ago, ESET wrote on Twitter.

Another well-known software security firm, Symantec, later speculated that the malware had actually been developed as far back as November 2021.

Ministries, banks targeted

Over the past fortnight, computer systems at various Ukrainian ministries, government organizations and banks have been subject to what are known as DDoS, or denial of service, attacks. A DDoS attack happens when an organization's Internet servers are so flooded with requests for information that they stop working.

In the past week alone, Ukraine has recorded cyber-attacks against its defense ministry and two large Ukrainian banks: PrivatBank and JSC Oschadbank. Individual customers and the whole online banking system were temporarily affected.

This is not new for Ukraine, which has recorded similar cyber-attacks over the past year. It has become increasingly clear that when it comes to this kind of hybrid war, where Russia uses digital weapons as well as guns and bombs, a script is being followed.

First, the pro-Russian separatists of the Donetsk People's Republic, a breakaway zone in eastern Ukraine, that was officially — and controversially — recognized by Russia on Monday this week, published a video of the zone's self-proclaimed leader, Denis Pushilin. In it, he declares there will be a mobilization of troops in the zone and civilian evacuations because of the danger posed by Ukraine.

This was followed by video footage of people being evacuated in buses from the separatists' zone, which has been occupied by them, with Russian support, since 2014.

Another video was published just two days later. It purports to show soldiers from a special unit arresting alleged agents of the Ukrainian government. Their faces are never shown.

Then another video appeared, showing a guard station on the border between the area that pro-Russian separatists control and Russia. It had been allegedly blown up.

Pre-recorded emergencies

The most interesting video was likely the one that Pushilin recorded in Donetsk. Using metadata embedded in the video, online investigators discovered that the urgent message, calling for emergency mobilization and evacuation, had actually been recorded three days earlier, on February 18.

That was the day that the US government had said an attack by Russia against Ukraine was most likely to happen.

There is no doubt that misinformation of all kinds is being spread via social media. On Twitter, the Ukrainian government said its own official announcements were the only ones users should trust. Germany's Ministry of Defense also warned of possible misinformation spread by Russia.

Sources in Moscow and Kyiv also reported that the speech given by Russian President Vladimir Putin and broadcast on Russian state television Thursday night was likely also pre-recorded, possibly on Monday. This was also discovered by looking at the video's embedded metadata. Thursday was also the day that Putin officially recognized the separatist zones of Donetsk and Luhansk.

It's clear that the Kremlin has been creating its own narrative, using confusing disinformation deliberately.

These are just some examples of the skirmishes in the hybrid war Russia has been fighting against Ukraine for eight years now, while the rest of the world has largely looked the other way.

Ukraine Flugzeuge der UIA (Ukraine International Airlines)
Long term economic pressure: Ukraine International Airlines lost some insurance coverageImage: Maxym Marusenko/NurPhoto/picture alliance

All this is part of "a well-equipped toolbox, whereby the main priority is to determine the narrative," Margarete Klein, a researcher with the Berlin-based German Institute for Security Affairs (SWP) who specializes in eastern Europe, told DW shortly before Russia invaded Ukraine.

This tussle over who controls the narrative has been going on for years, Klein noted. "It's a strategy of attrition. They are trying to put Ukraine under as much pressure as possible, especially domestically, with the goal of pushing it back onto a pro-Russian path," she argued.

Fear of a liberal future

Previously this hasn't exactly worked out as intended. Ukraine's westward orientation has proven to be unexpectedly successful. In 2021, trade between Germany and Ukraine had already recovered from the shock of COVID-19 after just one year, reaching over €7.7 billion ($8.75 billion).

"There's a growing impression that Ukraine can get back on track under its own steam," said Alexander Markus, chairman of the German-Ukrainian Chamber of Commerce and Industry during an online conference in early February.

The spirit of the pro-European Maidan Revolution is believed to be precisely what makes Ukraine so interesting for western investors. Many young men and women, who were at school or university back then, and who demonstrated for a more pro-European government at the time, are now entrepreneurs and have done things like founded their own startups.

The successes of those who support Ukraine's pro-European stance has clearly been noticed by the Kremlin. Before the invasion, when diplomacy was still possible, the German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, visited Putin in Moscow.

At the February 15 meeting, Putin addressed the question of whether Ukraine would ever be allowed to join NATO, something he is deeply opposed to.

"Russia hears that Ukraine is not prepared to join NATO today," he told Scholz. "And they [NATO] say right away that it won't be admitted tomorrow, but will be admitted when they prepare it for this. But," the Russian President concluded, "this might be too late for us."

This text was originally published in German and was updated on February 24.

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