Russia downed satellite internet in Ukraine: Western officials

Officials say Moscow was behind cyberattack that caused a communication blackout in central Europe.

A laptop screen displays a warning message in Ukrainian, Russian and Polish, that appeared on the official website of the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry after a massive cyberattack,
Western intelligence agencies have warned that cyberattacks against Ukraine can cause "spillover" damage to global computer networks [File: Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters]

Russia was behind a massive cyberattack against a satellite internet network that took thousands of modems offline at the onset of the war in Ukraine, the United States, Britain, Canada and the European Union have said.

The digital assault against Viasat’s KA-SAT network took place in late February, as Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, the EU Council said in a statement on Tuesday.

“This cyberattack had a significant impact causing indiscriminate communication outages and disruptions across several public authorities, businesses and users in Ukraine, as well as affecting several EU Member States,” the statement said.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the cyberattack was intended “to disrupt Ukrainian command and control during the invasion, and those actions had spillover impacts into other European countries.”

A United Kingdom Foreign Office statement quoted Foreign Secretary Liz Truss as saying the cyberattack was a “deliberate and malicious attack by Russia against Ukraine”.

Russia’s primary target was the Ukrainian military, but it also disrupted wind farms and internet users in central Europe, the statement said, citing the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre.

The Foreign Office statement cited “new UK and US intelligence” that suggested Russia was behind the cyberattack, without elaborating.

The remote sabotage caused a “huge loss in communications in the very beginning of war,” Ukrainian cybersecurity official Victor Zhora said in March.

Russia routinely denies it carries out offensive cyber operations. Western intelligence agencies had previously warned of possible cyberattacks that had the potential to spread elsewhere and cause “spillover” damage on global computer networks.

The weeks ahead of Russia’s invasion saw a flurry of cyber operations against Ukrainian targets. In January, researchers discovered destructive malware called WhisperGate circulating in Ukraine. WhisperGate closely mirrored a 2017 Russian cyberattack against Ukraine, known as NotPetya, that similarly destroyed data on thousands of local computer systems.

A spate of distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks later attributed to Russia by the UK and the United States also briefly knocked Ukrainian banking and government websites offline.

In the early hours of February 24, as Russian forces entered eastern Ukraine, hackers crippled tens of thousands of satellite internet modems in Ukraine and across Europe. The modems provided internet to thousands of Ukrainians. It remains one of the biggest publicly known cyberattacks to have taken place in the conflict.

On March 1, a missile strike against Kyiv’s TV tower coincided with widespread destructive cyberattacks on Kyiv-based media. Days later, Microsoft detected a Russian group on the networks of an unnamed Ukrainian nuclear power company, just as Russia’s military occupied the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station, the largest in Europe.

Senior US national security officials said Moscow is combining cyber and military forces in the war in Ukraine. “We have seen the Russians having an integrated approach to using physical and cyberattacks, in an integrated way, to achieve their brutal objectives in Ukraine,” senior White House cybersecurity official Anne Neuberger told a conference.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies