The “IT ARMY” OF Ukraine HAS been Trying to Destroy RUSSIAN Financial Infrastructures

On Feb. 26 of 2022, Ukrainian Vice PM, Mykhailo Fedorov took a step no other government official in the world likely ever has: He publicly called on volunteer hackers to take down another country’s websites. And he had a list of 31 Russian government, bank, and corporation websites ready to go. Within days, Ukraine had amassed an “IT army” of more than 400,000 volunteers.
This undertaking risks escalation that will be hard to contain, as Moscow seeks to associate attacks by pro-Ukraine hackers with Western governments and may use that as a false pretext to target Western infrastructure. Although these volunteer hackers will almost certainly not have widespread destructive effects, in the long term, their actions could also undermine Russian war narratives, reduce domestic support in Russia for the invasion, and weaken Russian ransomware groups.
The IT army’s opening salvo was temporarily taking down the websites of the Russian foreign ministry, stock exchange, and a state-owned bank—all within days of Fedorov’s call to arms. They also claimed to target at least 10 other Russian websites, including those of Russia’s principal security agency and the Kremlin. Since the initial attacks, the IT army has been posting lists almost daily of additional Russian civilian and government websites in its Telegram channel and directing its participants to collectively target these sites. Some participants in the hacktivist campaign also worked under the banner of Anonymous, the loosely organized international hacker activist collective. Popular Anonymous-affiliated social media accounts declared “cyberwar” on Russia shortly after the invasion and subsequently claimed cyberattacks against Russian state TV and other high-profile targets. These claims have not all been independently verified, but in some cases, the targeted websites were inaccessible for hours at a time.
The hacktivists have predominantly used relatively unsophisticated distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, which overload websites with traffic, temporarily rendering them inaccessible but causing no long-term damage. Individuals can easily participate in DDoS attacks from anywhere in the world, with little technical skill, by using readily accessible tools online to join a group of computers simultaneously targeting a given website.
Hacktivists may be seeking to expand their tactics to include data leaks. Within two days of the invasion, actors operating under the banner of Anonymous began claiming to have hacked and leaked documents and email data from targets such as Russia’s censorship agency, Belarusian weapons manufacturer Tetraedr, and Russia’s space agency. (These specific claims have not been independently verified.)
The pro-Ukrainian hacktivists will almost certainly not be able to match Moscow’s cybercapabilities, since hacktivists lack the sophisticated offensive cybertools and resources that are traditionally the domain of state actors. However, it would also be a mistake to underestimate these groups.
Behind the veil of Anonymous and the IT army is a wide range of individuals with varied levels of technical expertise. They are located both inside and outside of Ukraine, though the exact geographic distribution of the hacktivists is unknown. The participants run the gamut, from amateurs launching DDoS attacks to skilled cyberdefense professionals coordinating more technically advanced attacks in smaller groups. Although varying skill level and lack of coordination will probably make it hard to sustain a 400,000 person IT army in the long term, the smaller groups may be able to achieve more disruptive operations over the course of the war, especially if they develop closer ties with the Ukrainian government.

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