Ukraine hit by more cyberattacks, destructive malware

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People attend a ceremony to mark the anniversary of the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan in the city of Kyiv, Ukraine, Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022. Russia says that some units participating in military exercises will begin returning to their bases. That adds to glimmers of hope that the Kremlin may not be planning to invade Ukraine imminently. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

Ukraine’s parliament and other government and banking websites were hit with another wave of distributed-denial-of-service attacks Wednesday, and cybersecurity researchers said unidentified attackers had also infected hundreds of computers with destructive malware.

Officials have long said they expect cyber attacks to precede and accompany any Russian military incursion, and analysts said the incidents hew to a nearly two-decade-old Russian playbook of wedding cyber operations with real-world aggression.

ESET Research Labs said it detected a new data-wiping piece of malware in Ukraine Wednesday on “hundreds of machines in the country.” It was not clear, however, how many networks were affected.

“With regards whether the malware was successful in its wiping capability, we assume that this indeed was the case and affected machines were wiped,” ESET research chief Jean-Ian Boutin said in response to questions from The Associated Press.

Boutin would not name the targets “to protect the victims, but these were large organizations that have been affected,” he said, adding that while ESET is unable to say who was responsible, “the attack appears to be related to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.”

Vikram Thakur, technical director at Symantec Threat Intelligence, said his outfit detected three organizations hit by the wiper malware — Ukrainian government contractors in Latvia and Lithuania and a financial institution in Ukraine.

All three had “close affiliation with the government of Ukraine,” said Thakur, indicating the attacks were anything but randomly targeted. He said roughly 50 computers at the financial organization were impacted by the malware, some with data wiped.

“No comments,” senior Ukrainian cyber defense official Victor Zhora said when asked about the ESET finding.

Boutin said the malware’s timestamp indicates it was created in late December. He said it has only been seen in Ukraine.

“Russia likely has been planning this for months, so it is hard to say how many organizations or agencies have been backdoored in preparation for these attacks,” said Chester Wisniewski, principal research scientist at the cybersecurity firm Sophos. He guessed the Kremlin intended with the malware to “send the message that they have compromised a significant amount of Ukrainian infrastructure and these are just little morsels to show how ubiquitous their penetration is.”

Word of the wiper follows a mid-January attack that Ukrainian officials blamed on Russia in which the defacement of some 70 government websites was used to mask intrusions into government networks in which at least two servers were damaged with wiper malware masquerading as ransomware.

Thakur said it was too early to say if the malware attack discovered Wednesday was as serious as the variety that damaged servers in January.

Cyberattacks have been a key tool of Russian aggression in Ukraine since before 2014, when the Kremlin annexed Crimea and hackers tried to thwart elections. They were also used against Estonia in 2007 and Georgia in 2008.

Distributed-denial-of-service attacks are among the least impactful because they don’t entail network intrusion. Such attacks barrage websites with junk traffic so they become unreachable.

The DDoS targets Wednesday included the defense and foreign ministries, the Council of Ministers and Privatbank, the country’s largest commercial bank. Many of the same sites were similarly knocked offline Feb. 13-14 in DDoS attacks that the U.S. and U.K. governments quickly blamed on Russia’s GRU military intelligence agency

Wednesday’s DDoS attacks appeared less impactful than the earlier onslaught — with targeted sites soon reachable again — as emergency responders blunted them. Zhora’s office, Ukraine’s information protection agency, said responders switched to a different DDoS protection service provider.

Doug Madory, director of internet analysis at the network management firm Kentik Inc., recorded two attack waves each lasting more than an hour.

A spokesman for California-based Cloudflare, which provides services to some of the targeted sites, said DDoS attacks in Ukraine have been sporadic and on the rise in the past month but “relatively modest compared to large DDoS attacks we’ve handled in the past.”

The West blames Russia’s GRU for some of the most damaging cyberattacks on record, including a pair in 2015 and 2016 that briefly knocked out parts of Ukraine’s power grid and the NotPetya “wiper” virus of 2017, which caused more than $10 billion of damage globally by infecting companies that do business in Ukraine with malware seeded through a tax preparation software update.

The wiper malware detected in Ukraine this year has so far been manually activated, as opposed to a worm like NotPetya, which can spread out of control across borders.

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