'For the first time in history, anyone can join a war': Volunteers enter the cyber battle between Russia and Ukraine

As digital volunteers from all over the world join the fight, cyber warfare related to the Ukraine-Russia conflict is growing.

According to Check Point Software Technologies' research arm, the volume of cyberattacks carried out by — and on behalf of — both countries since the start of the war is "staggering."

“For the first time in history anyone can join a war,” said Lotem Finkelstein, head of threat intelligence at Check Point Software. “We’re seeing the entire cyber community involved, where many groups and individuals have taken a side, either Russia or Ukraine.”

“It’s a lot of cyber chaos,” he said.

Grassroots, global uprising

According to Check Point Research, internet attacks on Ukrainian military and government sectors spiked by 196 percent in the first three days after the invasion (CPR). According to the data, they also grew modestly against Russian (4 percent) and Ukrainian (0.2 percent) groups, while declining in most other parts of the world.

According to Yuval Wollman, president of cyber security firm CyberProof and former director-general of the Israeli Intelligence Ministry, 400,000 foreign hackers have volunteered to help Ukraine since then.
Source: Check Point Research
“Grassroots volunteers created widespread disruption — graffitiing anti-war messages on Russian media outlets and leaking data from rival hacking operations,” he said. “Never have we seen this level of involvement by outside actors unrelated to the conflict.”

Three weeks in, Ukraine continues to sustain a barrage of online attacks, with most aimed at its government and military, according to CPR’s data.

Moscow has consistently denied that it engages in cyberwarfare or assists cyberattacks. On Feb. 19, the Russian embassy in Washington said on Twitter that it “has never conducted and does not conduct any ‘malicious’ operations in cyberspace.”

According to CPR data, attacks on Russia have dropped during the same time period, according to Finkelstein. He believes there are numerous explanations for this, including Russian efforts to hide assaults or better security to guard against them.

‘IT Army of Ukraine’

Ukraine, which has long been a victim of suspected Russian cyberattacks, appears to be grateful for the assistance.

Some 308,000 people joined a Telegram channel known as the "IT Army of Ukraine" after Ukraine's digital minister, Mykhailo Fedorov, tweeted a call on Twitter.

Gennady Galanter, co-founder of the information technology firm Provectus, is one of the group's members. According to him, the group's main goals are to disrupt Russian websites, prevent disinformation, and provide factual information to Russian citizens.

“It’s working,” he said, clarifying that he’s acting in his own capacity, and not for his company.  

Still, Galanter said he has mixed feelings about participating. One tactic employed by the group is distributed denial of service attacks, which try to make targeted websites inaccessible by overwhelming them with online traffic.

The reality is that a lot of my friends in Russia, my relatives … they’re completely misinformed.
Gennady Galanter
co-founder of Provectus

“It’s hooliganism,” he said, yet at the same time Galanter, who fled the Soviet Union in 1991 and whose wife is Russian, said he feels compelled to help do his part to “deliver truth and deny lies.” 

He’s donated money, he said, but now, he added, “I’m doing this because I don’t know what else to do.”

Galanter said he’s concerned current efforts may be insufficient against Russia’s cyber capabilities. He also said he’s worried the group’s efforts may be dismissed as Ukrainian or Western propaganda or labeled a disinformation machine of the very type he says he’s fighting against.

“The reality is that a lot of my friends in Russia, my relatives … they’re completely misinformed,” he said. “They have a deeply inaccurate view of what’s going on — they just put to doubt what we say.”

Galanter said his company shut down its operations in Russia and helped to relocate employees who wanted to leave. He said the company told employees: “The world has become pretty white and black. Those of you who share our perception of reality, you’re welcome to join us.”

“Just like these people are now, I was a refugee,” he said. “What [Putin] wants to create is exactly what I escaped.”

Moscow retaliation

Moscow and its backers are generally expected to respond against countries that support Ukraine, as well as the growing list of banks and corporations departing from the country.

Elon Musk tweeted on March 4 that the decision to redirect Starlink satellites and deliver internet terminals to Ukraine meant that the “probability of being targeted is high.”

Experts warn that reciprocal retribution between Russia and the West could result in a "global cyberwar."

Russia is widely suspected of being behind multiple cyberattacks against Ukraine in the weeks leading up to the invasion, but Wollman claims that Russia has exhibited restraint since then, "at least for now."

Still, indications of rising internal discontent in the Kremlin over fresh sanctions, exacerbated by Russia's military failures in Ukraine, suggest that cyber warfare may be one of Putin's few remaining "weapons," he said.

"What instruments does the Kremlin have at its disposal in the face of sanctions?" "They don't have any economic tools," Wollman explained. "A cyber response, according to others, would be the most likely Russian countermeasure."

Is there a risk of spillover to other conflicts?

The crisis between Ukraine and Russia has the potential to inflame other long-standing territorial disputes. AutoPolitic and QSearch, two Taiwanese internet entrepreneurs, said last week that they will provide free technical support to Ukraine and "Ukrainian online activists around the world" to battle Russian propaganda on social media.

"As a Taiwanese who has lived under constant propaganda and invasion threats from our cousin-neighbor, I have a special affinity with Ukrainians and acidic fury for their invaders," AutoPolitic creator Roger Do said in a press release.

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