27 June 2017



The clocks read zero when the lights went out.

It was a Saturday night last December, and Oleksii Yasinsky was sitting on the couch with his wife and teenage son in the living room of their Kiev apartment. The 40-year-old Ukrainian cybersecurity researcher and his family were an hour into Oliver Stone’s film Snowden when their building abruptly lost power.

“The hackers don’t want us to finish the movie,” Yasinsky’s wife joked. She was referring to an event that had occurred a year earlier, a cyberattack that had cut electricity to nearly a quarter-million Ukrainians two days before Christmas in 2015. Yasinsky, a chief forensic analyst at a Kiev digital security firm, didn’t laugh. He looked over at a portable clock on his desk: The time was 00:00. Precisely midnight.

Yasinsky’s television was plugged into a surge protector with a battery backup, so only the flicker of images onscreen lit the room now. The power strip started beeping plaintively. Yasinsky got up and switched it off to save its charge, leaving the room suddenly silent.

He went to the kitchen, pulled out a handful of candles and lit them. Then he stepped to the kitchen window. The thin, sandy-blond engineer looked out on a view of the city as he’d never seen it before: The entire skyline around his apartment building was dark. Only the gray glow of distant lights reflected off the clouded sky, outlining blackened hulks of modern condos and Soviet high-rises.

Noting the precise time and the date, almost exactly a year since the December 2015 grid attack, Yasinsky felt sure that this was no normal blackout. He thought of the cold outside—close to zero degrees Fahrenheit—the slowly sinking temperatures in thousands of homes, and the countdown until dead water pumps led to frozen pipes.

That’s when another paranoid thought began to work its way through his mind: For the past 14 months, Yasinsky had found himself at the center of an enveloping crisis. A growing roster of Ukrainian companies and government agencies had come to him to analyze a plague of cyberattacks that were hitting them in rapid, remorseless succession. A single group of hackers seemed to be behind all of it. Now he couldn’t suppress the sense that those same phantoms, whose fingerprints he had traced for more than a year, had reached back, out through the internet’s ether, into his home.

The Cyber-Cassandras said this would happen. For decades they warned that hackers would soon make the leap beyond purely digital mayhem and start to cause real, physical damage to the world. In 2009, when the NSA’s Stuxnet malware silently accelerated a few hundred Iranian nuclear centrifuges until they destroyed themselves, it seemed to offer a preview of this new era. “This has a whiff of August 1945,” Michael Hayden, former director of the NSA and the CIA, said in a speech. “Somebody just used a new weapon, and this weapon will not be put back in the box.”

Now, in Ukraine, the quintessential cyberwar scenario has come to life. Twice. On separate occasions, invisible saboteurs have turned off the electricity to hundreds of thousands of people. Each blackout lasted a matter of hours, only as long as it took for scrambling engineers to manually switch the power on again. But as proofs of concept, the attacks set a new precedent: In Russia’s shadow, the decades-old nightmare of hackers stopping the gears of modern society has become a reality.

And the blackouts weren’t just isolated attacks. They were part of a digital blitzkrieg that has pummeled Ukraine for the past three years—a sustained cyber­assault unlike any the world has ever seen. A hacker army has systematically undermined practically every sector of Ukraine: media, finance, transportation, military, politics, energy. Wave after wave of intrusions have deleted data, destroyed computers, and in some cases paralyzed organizations’ most basic functions. “You can’t really find a space in Ukraine where there hasn’t been an attack,” says Kenneth Geers, a NATO ambassador who focuses on cybersecurity.

In a public statement in December, Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, reported that there had been 6,500 cyberattacks on 36 Ukrainian targets in just the previous two months. International cybersecurity analysts have stopped just short of conclusively attributing these attacks to the Kremlin, but Poroshenko didn’t hesitate: Ukraine’s investigations, he said, point to the “direct or indirect involvement of secret services of Russia, which have unleashed a cyberwar against our country.” (The Russian foreign ministry didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.)

To grasp the significance of these assaults—and, for that matter, to digest much of what’s going on in today’s larger geopolitical disorder—it helps to understand Russia’s uniquely abusive relationship with its largest neighbor to the west. Moscow has long regarded Ukraine as both a rightful part of Russia’s empire and an important territorial asset—a strategic buffer between Russia and the powers of NATO, a lucrative pipeline route to Europe, and home to one of Russia’s few accessible warm-water ports. For all those reasons, Moscow has worked for generations to keep Ukraine in the position of a submissive smaller sibling.

But over the past decade and a half, Moscow’s leash on Ukraine has frayed, as popular support in the country has pulled toward NATO and the European Union. In 2004, Ukrainian crowds in orange scarves flooded the streets to protest Moscow’s rigging of the country’s elections; that year, Russian agents allegedly went so far as to poison the surging pro-Western presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko. A decade later, the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution finally overthrew the country’s Kremlin-­backed president, Viktor Yanukovych (a leader whose longtime political adviser, Paul Manafort, would go on to run the US presidential campaign of Donald Trump). Russian troops promptly annexed the Crimean Peninsula in the south and invaded the Russian-­speaking eastern region known as Donbass. Ukraine has since then been locked in an undeclared war with Russia, one that has displaced nearly 2 million internal refugees and killed close to 10,000 Ukrainians.

“Russia will never accept a sovereign, independent Ukraine. Twenty-­five years since the Soviet collapse, Russia is still sick with this imperialistic syndrome.”

From the beginning, one of this war’s major fronts has been digital. Ahead of Ukraine’s post-revolution 2014 elections, a pro-­Russian group calling itself CyberBerkut—an entity with links to the Kremlin hackers who later breached Democratic targets in America’s 2016 presidential election—rigged the website of the country’s Central Election Commission to announce ultra-right presidential candidate Dmytro Yarosh as the winner. Administrators detected the tampering less than an hour before the election results were set to be declared. And that attack was just a prelude to Russia’s most ambitious experiment in digital war, the barrage of cyberattacks that began to accelerate in the fall of 2015 and hasn’t ceased since.

Yushchenko, who ended up serving as Ukraine’s president from 2005 to 2010, believes that Russia’s tactics, online and off, have one single aim: “to destabilize the situation in Ukraine, to make its government look incompetent and vulnerable.” He lumps the blackouts and other cyberattacks together with the Russian disinformation flooding Ukraine’s media, the terroristic campaigns in the east of the country, and his own poisoning years ago—all underhanded moves aimed at painting Ukraine as a broken nation. “Russia will never accept Ukraine being a sovereign and independent country,” says Yushchenko, whose face still bears traces of the scars caused by dioxin toxicity. “Twenty-­five years since the Soviet collapse, Russia is still sick with this imperialistic syndrome.”

But many global cybersecurity analysts have a much larger theory about the endgame of Ukraine’s hacking epidemic: They believe Russia is using the country as a cyberwar testing ground—a laboratory for perfecting new forms of global online combat. And the digital explosives that Russia has repeatedly set off in Ukraine are ones it has planted at least once before in the civil infrastructure of the United States.

One Sunday morning in October 2015, more than a year before Yasinsky would look out of his kitchen window at a blacked-out skyline, he sat near that same window sipping tea and eating a bowl of cornflakes. His phone rang with a call from work. He was then serving as the director of information security at StarLightMedia, Ukraine’s largest TV broadcasting conglomerate. During the night, two of StarLight’s servers had inexplicably gone offline. The IT administrator on the phone assured him that the servers had already been restored from backups.

But Yasinsky felt uneasy. The two machines had gone dark at almost the same minute. “One server going down, it happens,” Yasinsky says. “But two servers at the same time? That’s suspicious.”

Resigned to a lost weekend, he left his apartment and took the 40-minute metro ride to StarLightMedia’s office. When he got there, Yasinsky and the company’s IT admins examined the image they’d kept of one of the corrupted servers. Its master boot record, the deep-seated, reptile-brain portion of a computer’s hard drive that tells the machine where to find its own operating system, had been precisely overwritten with zeros. This was especially troubling, given that the two victim servers were domain controllers, computers with powerful privileges that could be used to reach into hundreds of other machines on the corporate network.

Yasinsky printed the code and laid the papers across his kitchen table and floor. He'd been in information security for 20 years, but he’d never analyzed such a refined digital weapon.

Yasinsky quickly discovered the attack was indeed far worse than it had seemed: The two corrupted servers had planted malware on the laptops of 13 StarLight employees. The infection had triggered the same boot-record overwrite technique to brick the machines just as staffers were working to prepare a morning TV news bulletin ahead of the country’s local elections.

Nonetheless, Yasinsky could see he’d been lucky. Looking at StarLight’s network logs, it appeared the domain controllers had committed suicide prematurely. They’d actually been set to infect and destroy 200 more PCs at the company. Soon Yasinsky heard from a competing media firm called TRK that it had been less fortunate: That company lost more than a hundred computers to an identical attack.

Yasinsky managed to pull a copy of the destructive program from StarLight’s network. Back at home, he pored over its code. He was struck by the layers of cunning obfuscation—the malware had evaded all antivirus scans and even impersonated an antivirus scanner itself, Microsoft’s Windows Defender. After his family had gone to sleep, Yasinsky printed the code and laid the papers across his kitchen table and floor, crossing out lines of camouflaging characters and highlighting commands to see its true form. Yasinsky had been working in information security for 20 years; he’d managed massive networks and fought off crews of sophisticated hackers before. But he’d never analyzed such a refined digital weapon.

“With every step forward, it became clearer that our Titanic had found its iceberg. The deeper we looked, the bigger it was.”

Beneath all the cloaking and misdirection, Yasinsky figured out, was a piece of malware known as KillDisk, a data-destroying parasite that had been circulating among hackers for about a decade. To understand how it got into their system, Yasinsky and two colleagues at StarLight obsessively dug into the company’s network logs, combing them again and again on nights and weekends. By tracing signs of the hackers’ finger­prints—some compromised corporate YouTube accounts, an administrator’s network login that had remained active even when he was out sick—they came to the stomach-turning realization that the intruders had been inside their system for more than six months. Eventually, Yasinsky identified the piece of malware that had served as the hackers’ initial foothold: an all-­purpose Trojan known as BlackEnergy.

Soon Yasinsky began to hear from colleagues at other companies and in the government that they too had been hacked, and in almost exactly the same way. One attack had hit Ukrzaliznytsia, Ukraine’s biggest railway company. Other targets asked Yasinsky to keep their breaches secret. Again and again, the hackers used BlackEnergy for access and reconnaissance, then KillDisk for destruction. Their motives remained an enigma, but their marks were everywhere.

“With every step forward, it became clearer that our Titanic had found its iceberg,” says Yasinsky. “The deeper we looked, the bigger it was.”

Even then, Yasinsky didn’t know the real dimensions of the threat. He had no idea, for instance, that by December 2015, BlackEnergy and KillDisk were also lodged inside the computer systems of at least three major Ukrainian power companies, lying in wait. 

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