Cutting Edge Cyber War

Western attention and support for Ukraine’s cyber defenses from the United States and NATO seem to be an important focus currently. This support is especially relevant and necessary during this pivotal presidential election cycle.

On January 23, 2019, the President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the World Economic Forum in Davos. According to Kyiv Post, the two leaders discussed cybersecurity issues in the context of the upcoming Ukrainian presidential election and the possibility of Russian interference.

Poroshenko did not elaborate on the content of the discussions, only acknowledging that the two spoke about cybersecurity and the exchange of data. He emphasized that it was Ukraine’s initiative that led to the creation of the NATO Trust Fund on Cyber Defence for Ukraine, to which Germany, the United States, and the United Kingdom are major contributors. He also touted his country’s bilateral cybersecurity agreements with those three countries as evidence of Ukraine’s deep commitment to cybersecurity cooperation with its European and NATO counterparts.

Given reports that Russia has already allocated enormous resources to enhancing its capacity to launch cyberattacks, it is reasonable to assume that Poroshenko asked for Germany’s support in the Russian-led cyber war against Ukraine. Russia’s embrace of cyber warfare has produced new technologies and methods that Ukraine and the European Union have yet to encounter. As such, the EU and Ukraine will be best prepared to defend against cyberattacks by working together to improve their cyber defenses.

Moscow’s use of cryptocurrency to pay hackers for the attack in late January on the computers and email accounts of employees of the Ukrainian Central Election Commission (UCEC) constitutes one of these new cyber warfare methods.

It should be recognized, however, that this was not the first time Russian secret services used cryptocurrency to employ hackers for cyberattacks. In 2016, Russian operatives used Bitcoin to pay for the registration of a website, dcleaks.com, where hackers later posted emails stolen from Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Russian hackers used cryptocurrency to buy so-called virtual private network (VPN) accounts that allowed them to obscure their internet protocol address (IPA) and location when they went online.

Computation in cryptocurrency is very difficult to track, since it occurs peer-to-peer—directly between buyer and seller—without the involvement or oversight of financial institutions. This makes it very difficult to document such payments as evidence in court. A few blockchain investigative tools, such as Chainalysis or Crystal, can map suspicious cryptocurrency transactions and related entities. It is unknown, however, whether or not Ukrainian cybersecurity forces have access to such tools.

For more than four years since 2014, Ukraine has acted as the testing ground for Russia’s tactics of cyber war. It is in Europe’s interest to help Ukraine protect itself from Russian cyberattacks. If previous instances are any guide, the Kremlin will eventually pivot to use its new cyber weapons against the EU.