The Ukrainian government considers Russian cyberattacks against energy and critical infrastructure to be war crimes. These attacks target civilian populations and are coordinated with targeted missile and drone strikes. A request to rule in this sense has been filed with the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
In Ukraine, between 2015 and 2016, a wave of 6,500 cyberattacks against institutions and infrastructure crippled 12 power plants across the country. In Ivano-Frankivs’k, in the west of the country, an attack on the Prykkarpatya Oblenergo power station left 250,000 users without electricity for six hours.
Futura had gone there and a technician had shown the videos he had filmed during the attack. On the control screens, the hackers could be seen in action, taking full control of the facilities. Impossible to regain control! As the electrical installations mixed Soviet and modern technologies, the operators were able to locally and manually restart the power delivery points. The attack had been well prepared and the hackers had waited for the holiday period to carry out their action.
But, since February 24, 2022, if the bombardments of electrical installations are almost daily, cyberattacks are no longer really in the news. Yet they strike as much as before, if not more. The objective remains the same: to cut the current by attacking the energy distribution points to turn off all communications, paralyze the country and make winter a little more nightmarish for the populations.
According to Victor Zhora, head of digital transformation at the State Service for Special Communications and Information Protection (SSSCIP) of Ukraine — in other words, the equivalent of France’s ANSSI — since the first strikes in October on critical facilities, Russian cyberattacks are systematically coordinated on the same structures. Examples abound. Thus, the spokesperson explains that, during the bombardment of a thermal power station of the electrician DTEK, the networks of the company are attacked. In Odessa, Lviv or even Mykolaiv, the bombings are also accompanied by cyberattacks against the networks of local authorities, websites or local telecommunications operators.
Cyber war crimes: a first!
For this manager interviewed by Politico, these coordinated cyberattacks could constitute war crimes since they specifically target civilian populations. Its services collect evidence of these cyberattacks linked to keystrokes and transmit this information to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.
The Office of the Prosecutor of the ICC has also recently been asked to rule in this regard. If successful, it would be the first time cyberattacks on infrastructure have been classified as war crimes. For the official, these attacks, as silent as they are, do not only concern Ukraine. They also reach the European and Western allies of the country and in particular those belonging to the Atlantic Alliance (NATO).
“These coordinated cyberattacks could constitute war crimes since they specifically target civilian populations”
So, according to ReutersRussian hackers known as Cold River targeted three nuclear research labs in the United States this summer. These were phishing attacks in an attempt to break into the network. These intrusion attempts took place precisely when UN experts were on a mission to inspect the largest nuclear power plant in Europe in the Zaporijjia oblast. This installation, which is located on Ukrainian territory controlled by Russia, is the subject of regular bombardments in the immediate vicinity.
Are hackers implicated in Russian war crimes?
Still according to information from Reuters, the group Cold River has been known for more than six years and it is intertwined with the Kremlin to support a number of disinformation or influence operations abroad. One of his feats of arms is to have been able to divulge the e-mails of the former head of MI6, the foreign intelligence service of the United Kingdom a few months ago. More recently, Cold River registered domain names to impersonate three European NGOs investigating war crimes.
It must be said that this group of hackers, along with others associated with the Kremlin, seeks to identify the military, members of the public service, as well as pro-Ukrainian militants in the territories of Ukraine occupied by the Russian army. These people are then captured, tortured and often killed.