“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. On separate occasions, invisible saboteurs have turned off the electricity to hundreds of thousands of people.
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. He was then serving as the director of information security at Star Light Media, Ukraine’s largest TV broadcasting conglomerate.
During the night, two of Star Light’s servers had inexplicably gone offline.
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).
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 Cyber Berkut—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.
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.“You can’t really find a space in Ukraine where there 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.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.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.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 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.