Information Warfare: The Russian Cyber Militia

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October 20,2008:  Georgia was not just invaded by Russian troops last August, it was also hammered on the Internet, with the same Cyber War techniques used against Estonia last year. An investigation by a large team of Internet experts concluded that, as with the attacks on Estonia, the Russian government was not directly involved in the Georgia attacks. The Cyber War attacks on Georgia were coordinated from a non-government web site. If there was any Russian government involvement, it was indirect. For example, the attacks on Georgian web sites began with a very complete list of targets. Not that any of the Russian civilian volunteers couldn't have put such a list together, but this one appeared "general staff" thorough.

In the wake of last year's attacks, Russia was accused of causing great financial harm to Estonia, and Estonia wants this sort of thing declared terrorism, and dealt with. NATO agreed to discuss the issue, but never took any action against Russia. But as a result of that incident, NATO did establish a Cyber Defense Center in Estonia earlier this year. That is one tangible result of the 2007 Cyber War attacks. The Center will study Cyber War techniques and incidents, and attempt to coordinate efforts by other NATO members to create Cyber War defenses, and offensive weapons.

Also earlier this year, Estonia concluded that the weeks of Cyber War attacks it endured last year were not an act of war. Or, rather, the attacks were not carried out by the Russian government, but at the behest of the government by Russian hackers angry at Estonia. Some Internet security researchers believe that the attacks were the result of efforts by a small number of hackers, who had access to thousands of captive (or "zombie") PCs. Some of the zombies were located in Russian government offices. But that's not unusual, as government PCs worldwide tend to be less well protected than those in large corporations. It is believed that other governments are behind similar attacks that temporarily shut down politically embarrassing web sites. This is becoming very common, and often the attacks are ones where only a particular government would benefit.

Last year's attacks were the result of Estonia moving a statue, honoring Russian World War II soldiers, from the center of the capital, to a military cemetery. The Estonians always saw the statue as a reminder of half a century of Russian occupation and oppression. Russia saw the  move as an insult to the efforts of Russian soldiers to liberate Estonia, and enable the Russians to occupy the place for half a century. The basic problem here is that most Russians don't see their Soviet era ancestors as evil people, despite the millions of Russians and non-Russians killed by the Soviet secret police. The Russians are very proud of their defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II, ignoring the fact that the Soviet government was just biding its time before it launched its own invasion of Germany and Europe in general. Georgia has been occupied by the Russians for over a century, and were never really very comfortable with it.

While many Russians would have backed a military attack on Estonia, to retaliate for the insult by an ungrateful neighbor, this approach was seen as imprudent. Estonia is now part of NATO, and an attack on one NATO member is considered an attack on all. It's because of this Russian threat that Estonia hustled to get into NATO. The Russians, however, believed that massive Cyber War attacks would not trigger a NATO response. Meanwhile, Russian language message boards were full of useful information on how to join the holy war against evil Estonia. There's no indication that any Russians were afraid of a visit from the Russian cyber-police for any damage done to Estonia. And the damage was significant, amounting to millions of dollars. While no one was injured, Estonia insisted that this attack, by Russia, should trigger the mutual defense provisions of the NATO treaty. It didn't, but it was a reminder to all that Cyber War is very real.

The same patterns were repeated with the attacks directed at Georgia. Again, the Russian government denies any involvement. Estonia sent two Cyber War exerts to Georgia, to help in dealing with the Internet based attacks coming out of Russia. In addition, Georgia is trying to join NATO.

 


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