Since the Crimea crisis erupted, international attention focused naturally on Russian troop movements and signs of fresh moves by Moscow to isolate the Crimean Peninsula or step up the tempo of the military deployment into Ukrainian territory. However, during this period, Russia also initiated an information campaign that was accompanied by signs of cyber warfare activities similar to its virtual attacks on Georgia, which preceded military operations in August 2008. Nonetheless, there are also important differences linked to local service providers and Russian caution concerning cyber-attacks on Ukraine. Equally, the wider information campaign to dominate the information space matches and complements the emerging Kremlin strategy in the crisis (NTV, Channel One TV, Rossiya 1 TV, Rossiya 24 news channel, Interfax, ITAR-TASS, March 1–9).
According to Valentyn Nalivaichenko, the head of Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU), the country’s telecommunications system came under sustained cyber-attack, which he attributed to officially-backed Russian sources. Nalivaichenko told the Rada (Ukrainian parliament) that the source of the attack was linked to equipment installed in Russian-controlled Crimea. He explained to deputies that such equipment was used to interfere with cell phones belonging to Ukrainian members of parliament: “I confirm that an IP-telephonic attack is under way on mobile phones of members of the Ukrainian parliament for the second day in a row,” adding, “At the entrance to [telecommunications firm] Ukrtelecom in Crimea, illegally and in violation of all commercial contracts, was installed equipment that blocks my phone as well as the phones of other deputies, regardless of their political affiliation.” “All state information security systems were unprepared for such a brazen violation of the law,” Nalivaichenko continued (Unian, March 4).
Crimea has its own internet exchange point acting as a hub for routing all online traffic, which means that Moscow can block and completely isolate the peninsula in cyberspace. Russia and Ukraine have reputedly well-advanced cyber-warfare capabilities, whether officially State-linked or through teams of non-governmental cyber-warriors. Additionally, only 50 percent of the optical fiber links into Ukraine are from Russia, effectively limiting the potential success of a cyber-attack aimed at maximizing disruption (http://en.ukrtelecom.ua/about/news?id=120507&_ga=1.122080968.272872372.1394354932).
As a result, Russia’s cyber activities during the crisis have been cautious and more targeted and sporadic. Finally, it is worth noting that although Moscow plans to establish a cyber-warfare command in the Armed Forces, this is not expected to emerge before 2017. Meanwhile the power structure in charge of Russian cyber-security is the Federal Security Service (FSB); and it is unlikely to easily relinquish this status and function.
Moscow’s wider information campaign promotes Kremlin policy in the crisis by attacking Western interpretations of events in the Maidan, and offers an entirely different picture of events and subsequent developments. Russian media coverage, for example, portrays the new government in Kyiv as illegitimate and supports the legitimacy of the deposed Viktor Yanukovych (NTV, Channel One TV, Rossiya 1 TV, Rossiya 24 news channel, March 1–9). Consistent with this information campaign, on March 9, Russian TV channels began broadcasts in Crimea using frequencies previously used by Ukrainian TV (ITAR-TASS, March 9).
Indeed, Russian officials question whether Yanukovych may be convincingly blamed for the use of snipers to crack down on the Maidan demonstrations, and recently a tapped telephone call between Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet and European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton played well in the Russian media. The recorded telephone call took place on February 26, and seemed to indicate doubts at the highest level of the Estonian government concerning whether the Maidan snipers were linked to the deposed Ukrainian leader; on the contrary it appeared to suggest a link to elements of the then opposition. The Estonian foreign ministry confirmed the authenticity of the recording of the telephone conversation. On its website the ministry said: “The conversation between Paet and Ashton took place on 26 February after the Estonian Foreign Minister’s return from his visit to Ukraine. His visit took place last week, soon after the end of street violence in Kyiv,” adding, “Foreign Minister Paet was giving an overview of what he had heard the previous day in Kyiv and expressed concern over the situation on the ground. We reject the claim that Paet was giving an assessment of the opposition’s involvement in the violence” (Estonian Foreign Ministry, NTV, Channel One TV, Rossiya 1 TV, Rossiya 24 news channel, March 5).
The Estonian government, indeed, noted the link between Russian media coverage on March 5 of the intercepted telephone call on Russia’s main TV channels to a wider information campaign. Russian TV channels made much of the telephone call, and offered the view that a woman heard speaking during this conversation was “Olha Bohomolets” described as the “chief doctor” of the Maidan, claiming that she was offered the post of health minister by the new government. The head of the Russian Duma foreign affairs committee, Aleksey Pushkov, claimed that that the recording confirmed Moscow’s position that what occurred in Kyiv was a coup “and the telephone conversation between a representative of Estonia and Ashton confirms this once again. This is one of the reasons why Russia does not recognize the current opposition government, as it came to power illegally and is built on mystification and lies” (Interfax, March 5). Pushkov alleged that the EU was, consequently, aware that the shootings in the Maidan may not have been instigated by Yanukovych: “The idea is to take Ukraine to the zone of NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] influence at any cost, including at the cost of shooting people on the square,” he suggested (RT, NTV, Channel One TV, Rossiya 1 TV, Rossiya 24 news channel, Interfax, March 5; https://twitter.com/Alexey_Pushkov/status/441269763843842048). The recorded telephone call shows how quickly Russian intelligence can find potentially embarrassing raw data in order to fuel the information campaign.
That campaign unsurprisingly offers a view of the crisis that almost entirely opposes the Western version of events and supports Kremlin policy. It offers no insight into “what next?” and may imply that the Kremlin is uncertain concerning the endgame. Cyber-operations have been relatively low key, avoiding the Western media glare that accompanied Russian troop movements in Crimea. The potential tipping point in the crisis will come after the Crimean referendum on March 16 on joining the Russian Federation; Moscow may choose to act pre-emptively against the government in Kyiv if it shows signs of resisting the widely expected outcome of that vote. But the first signs of any escalation will be in cyber-space.