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Yushchenko, who ended up serving as Ukraine’s president from 2005 to 2010, believes that Russia’s tactics, online and off, have one single aim: “to destabilize the situation in Ukraine, to make its government look incompetent and vulnerable.” He lumps the blackouts and other cyberattacks together with the Russian disinformation flooding Ukraine’s media, the terroristic campaigns in the east of the country, and his own poisoning years ago—all underhanded moves aimed at painting Ukraine as a broken nation.
“Russia will never accept Ukraine being a sovereign and independent country,” says Yushchenko, whose face still bears traces of the scars caused by dioxin toxicity.
A growing roster of Ukrainian companies and government agencies had come to him to analyze a plague of cyberattacks that were hitting them in rapid, remorseless succession.
A single group of hackers seemed to be behind all of it.
International cybersecurity analysts have stopped just short of conclusively attributing these attacks to the Kremlin, but Poroshenko didn’t hesitate: Ukraine’s investigations, he said, point to the “direct or indirect involvement of secret services of Russia, which have unleashed a cyberwar against our country.” (The Russian foreign ministry didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.)To grasp the significance of these assaults—and, for that matter, to digest much of what’s going on in today’s larger geopolitical disorder—it helps to understand Russia’s uniquely abusive relationship with its largest neighbor to the west.
Moscow has long regarded Ukraine as both a rightful part of Russia’s empire and an important territorial asset—a strategic buffer between Russia and the powers of NATO, a lucrative pipeline route to Europe, and home to one of Russia’s few accessible warm-water ports.
A hacker army has systematically undermined practically every sector of Ukraine: media, finance, transportation, military, politics, energy.
The 40-year-old Ukrainian cybersecurity researcher and his family were an hour into Oliver Stone’s film when their building abruptly lost power.“The hackers don’t want us to finish the movie,” Yasinsky’s wife joked.He thought of the cold outside—close to zero degrees Fahrenheit—the slowly sinking temperatures in thousands of homes, and the countdown until dead water pumps led to frozen pipes.That’s when another paranoid thought began to work its way through his mind: For the past 14 months, Yasinsky had found himself at the center of an enveloping crisis.She was referring to an event that had occurred a year earlier, a cyberattack that had cut electricity to nearly a quarter-million Ukrainians two days before Christmas in 2015.Yasinsky, a chief forensic analyst at a Kiev digital security firm, didn’t laugh.
One Sunday morning in October 2015, more than a year before Yasinsky would look out of his kitchen window at a blacked-out skyline, he sat near that same window sipping tea and eating a bowl of cornflakes. He was then serving as the director of information security at Star Light Media, Ukraine’s largest TV broadcasting conglomerate.