arrows and shield

Ukraine’s IT Army Forges a Critical Cyber Shield

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The current conflict in Ukraine has heightened how cyberattacks have been brought forward as a key tactic of war and part of a nation state’s arsenal. Tragically, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we have now witnessed this in practice as a primary weapon alongside bullets and bombs. 

Prior to the invasion, cyberattacks featured prominently as Russia’s initial weapon of deployment. Russian-aligned actors attacked critical Ukrainian infrastructure and companies, not with missiles, but with digital payloads. 

Russia’s physical invasion of Ukraine began on February 24, but its cyber incursion started a day earlier. That is when they unleashed the zero-day malware “HermeticWiper” on crucial companies in Ukraine. The telecommunications businesses Kyivstar and Vodaphone Ukraine were major targets, along with many government entities. The HermeticWiper payload caused mass disruption, targeting Windows systems and erasing data while destroying the master boot record, making the machines inoperable.  

This was a deliberate and strategic action from the Russians—deploying a multi-faceted attack, cyber and then physical—and marked the first time we saw a major war start not with guns and ammunition, but with fingers across a keyboard.

Anticipating these and other assaults on the digital battlefield, the Ukrainian government made a desperate call for cyber arms. An “IT Army” of protectors soon formed a digital shield around Ukraine’s IT infrastructure, with thousands of recruits volunteering their time and expertise to mitigate Russian cyber intrusions. These global defenders, their keyboard warriors, and their worldwide allies are taking the fight directly into Russia, and it is unlikely the Russians expected this global reaction.

The entire planet has experienced the tragedy of Ukraine and the pain of its citizens, and Western nations have rightly acted. Prior to Russia’s invasion, the Australian government stood in solidarity with Ukraine, helping with cyber defence skills. For example, a bilateral ‘Cyber Policy Dialogue’ was created to assist in further training and uplifting Ukrainian cyber skill sets. And in recent days, the Australian government has offered both military and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine.

The world is imposing heavy sanctions on Russia’s government and its citizens, with their oligarchs a major focus. Western countries have frozen assets of Russian banks, and the U.S. has banned all Russian oil and gas imports. But as we anxiously observe this new form of cyber warfare and defence play out, more must be done to protect the Ukrainian people. 

The Australian government need not deploy the Army or Air Force, but rather our cyber defence warriors. We have thousands in our government’s cyber workforce who possess a tremendous variety of skills, able to help protect against Ukraine’s received cyberattacks. Combined with the resources of our secret intelligence community feeding actionable intelligence to the IT Army, and our arsenal becomes quite powerful.

Only then will the Ukrainian “IT Army” have a chance at prevailing in this conflict.