Russia’s ‘Cyber War’ Has Gotten Totally Ridiculous
Election hack fail shows limits of cyber war—and of the Kremlin’s narrative
On May 25, the Ukrainian public voted confectionery magnate and billionaire Petro Poroshenko into power. The elections went remarkably smooth for a country that has—within the past several months—experienced revolution, invasion and a bloody armed conflict.
It wasn’t a perfect election. Pro-Russian separatists blocked polling places in the east and the turnout was lower than expected. Still though, free and fair elections have come to Ukraine.
Unless you’re a pro-Russian hacker, or were watching Russian state TV.
Just before the elections wrapped up on May 25, Russia’s state-owned Channel One reported that the neo-fascist Right Sector candidate Dimitri Yarosh had won the election with a plurality of 37 percent of the vote. Their source? Ukraine’s Central Election Commissions Website.
The reality was much different. Poroshenko claimed victory with almost 60 percent of the vote. Yarosh carried less than one percent—an absolutely disastrous showing for the far right. That’s a pretty big mistake. How could a major news organization like Channel One make such huge error?
Early in the week the Security Service of the Ukraine—or SBU—announced it had arrested several hackers attempting to disrupt the election process.
According to the SBU, the group planned to introduce malware into the election commission’s Website and servers that would discredit the Ukrainian election by reporting results skewed heavily in the favor of the far-right Yarosh.
The hackers—irresponsibly—bragged about their exploits on the Internet. The SBU paid attention, rounded up members of the group and set to work fixing the election commission’s computer systems. Forty minutes before Channel One aired their story about Yarosh’s victory, the SBU fixed the bug.
This wasn’t the only cyber attack the SBU fended off during the election.
They thwarted multiple denial of service attacks, neutralized other viruses left by the hackers and cleaned up bugs in the software. Ukrainian media and government are both claiming that many of the attacks originated from within Russia, some through the use of botnets.
These are the kinds of low-grade cyberbullying asshatery we’ve come to associate with the Ukrainian cyber-war that isn’t.
Ukrainian media has called Russian Channel One’s false election reporting a “provocation.” They’re right. The idea that Ukraine would elect a far right nationalist as their president fits nicely into Moscow’s narrative of the conflict.
In this narrative, the Ukrainian revolution is led by the descendants of Stepan Bandera—a pro-Nazi resistance fighter in World War II. The implication is that Ukraine is better off under pro-Kremlin politicians.
But what appears to have happened is a far right implosion. Before, the far right could—with some success—position itself for protest votes from people opposed to the pro-Russian government of ousted Pres. Viktor Yanukovych. But the aftermath of the revolution means the far right now has few places to direct their anger.
“Without Yanukovych, its raison d’etre became—at least in the eyes of the voters—debatable,” blogged Anton Shekhovstov, an expert on the Ukrainian far right.
This doesn’t mean the far right is extinct. Far from it. If Poroshenko can’t effectively deal with the separatists shooting down helicopters and killing soldiers in the east—and deal with Ukraine’s extremely tough economic problems—then that could lead to an extremist revival.
But for now, the Kremlin’s narrative is showing itself to be increasingly out of touch with reality—and amateur hack attacks won’t change that.