Washington— Ukraine’s government servers were hit by a “massive cyberattack” overnight that shut down government websites, including the Foreign Ministry’s homepage, which temporarily displayed a warning message.people to “be afraid and expect the worst”.
Just hours before the latest digital sabotage, Ukraine’s ambassador to Washington told CBS News that her country believes a cyberattack will precede any major attack..
No one has claimed responsibility for the cyberattack, but Ukraine has accused groups with ties to the Russian government of previously sabotaging the same type.
“Following a massive cyberattack, the websites of the Foreign Office and a number of other government agencies are temporarily unavailable,” the Foreign Office said overnight. Previously, the ministry’s website displayed a message in Ukrainian, Russian and Polish saying, “Ukrainians! All your personal data… has been deleted and cannot be restored. All information about you has become public, be afraid and expect the worst. ”
Ukrainian and American officials told CBS News on Thursday that a potential military assault on Ukraine would not necessarily begin with Russian tanks crossing the frozen border in the coming weeks. Other methods of attack, including airstrikes as well as a staged provocation that could come from neighboring Belarus or another Russian-friendly territory in the region, were among the expected possibilities, as well as a previous cyberattack.
Putin’s preference for hybrid warfare also weighs heavily in the minds of Ukrainian officials.
“If Russia decides on a full invasion, we know we should expect an increase in cyberattacks before that,” Ukrainian Ambassador to the United States Oksana Markarova told CBS News on Thursday.
Russian cyberoffensives have been near constant for years and cover a range of debilitating attacks on infrastructure, from disabling power grids to active Russian-led disinformation campaigns aimed at turning the Ukrainian public against their own government. The resulting confusion and division could prove useful to Russian interests.
The speculation is that Russian President Vladimir Putin might attempt to use such tactics to justify a military attack.
President Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan hinted at US intelligence on Russian sabotage during a White House briefing on Thursday.
“Our intelligence community has developed information, which has now been declassified, that Russia is preparing the ground for the possibility of fabricating a pretext for an invasion – including through sabotage and information operations activities – by accusing Ukraine of planning an imminent attack on Russian forces in eastern Ukraine,” Sullivan told reporters.
A National Security Council spokesperson did not elaborate when asked by CBS News about Sullivan’s comments.
On Friday, an NCS spokesperson told CBS News that President Biden had been briefed on the cyberattack, but the board had yet to determine who was behind the sabotage.
The United States has sent cyber teams to Ukraine in recent weeks to help advise the country’s own security services, multiple sources confirmed to CBS News.
Cybersecurity expert Dmitry Alperovitch said he doubts a cyberattack is the main method used in any Russian offensive, but rather that it is used to “prepare the battlefield”. “I expect kinetic actions to take precedence in the offense, but cyberattacks will be used for intelligence purposes,” Alperovitch told CBS.
The Pentagon declined to describe the extent of support for Ukraine. “We have long supported Ukraine’s efforts to strengthen cyber defenses and increase its cyber resilience, but we have nothing more to offer at this time,” a Pentagon spokesperson said in a statement sent. at CBS News.
Tensions between Russia and the West are at an all-time high, with 100,000 Russian troops massed along Ukraine’s eastern border and US officials warning that Putin could order another invasion of the neighboring nation as early as this month- here or in February. War has been raging in eastern Ukraine between the country’s forces and Russian-backed separatists since 2014, when Russia invaded and seized the Crimean peninsula.
Moscow has sent mixed signals, insisting there are no plans to invade again, but showing no intention of reducing its military presence along the border and warning that military action could be taken at any time if the United States and its NATO allies refuse to give “security guarantees”. “Moscow’s main demand is that Ukraine’s candidacy for NATO membership be blocked. The United States has rejected this request, calling it a ‘non-participant’.
The Biden administration has also made it clear that its preferred diplomatic path can only progress if there is a climate of de-escalation, with Russia returning troops to their barracks and becoming transparent about its military movements.
The risk of a full frontal military invasion still remains high, according to US and Ukrainian officials. If Putin were to carry out a full invasion, using tanks during the frozen winter months of January and February, his forces would face a Ukrainian army armed with javelin missiles and other weapons supplied by the United States, as well only at a long battle border considering Ukraine. Cut. But, from Ukraine’s perspective, neither the risk of a military incursion nor Russian efforts to destabilize the country in other ways are likely to fade with the spring thaw.
US diplomats, led by Wendy Sherman of the State Department, continue to hold talks in a bid to persuade Putin to change his calculus. So far, the efforts have not led Russia to back down. On Thursday, Putin’s government called the talks a “failure”, and on Friday Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov doubled down on the Kremlin’s “red line” on Ukraine’s NATO membership.
Lavrov said that if security talks with the West fail, Russia’s response could lead to a deployment of military hardware. On Thursday, his deputy said Russia “won’t rule out” putting military hardware in Cuba or Venezuela.
“So far, we don’t see Russian military units withdrawing or stopping exercises near the border,” Ukrainian Ambassador Markarova told CBS News. “So Putin still uses him as a threat and as an instrument to get the West to talk to him.”
“He is also ready to invade again if he thinks there is a window of opportunity,” the diplomat added.
Ukraine urges the United States and NATO to exert greater political pressure, including hitting Russia with more economic sanctions and strengthening Ukraine’s defense capabilities.
Earlier this week, the US government’s cybersecurity agency CISA issued a public warning intended to prepare US critical infrastructure for possible fallout from any large-scale Russian cyberattack.
As CBS News’ Nicole Sganga reported, this is done in order to avoid an international ripple effect, like what happened after the 2017, which had global ramifications.
CBS News’ Olivia Gazis contributed to this report.