Researchers claim to have uncovered Russian cyber aimed at the Ukrainian military and government before and during the Sea of Azov captures.

Russian government-affiliated actors launched coordinated cyber attacks against Ukrainian government and military targets before and during the attack and seizure of Ukrainian ships and sailors on November 2, a private intelligence firm announced this week. The attacks appeared to be aimed at stealing information that would have been relevant to planning the operation, according to Stealthcare, a cyber intelligence group. If so, the revelation challenges Russia’s already widely-disputed claim that Ukraine initiated the crisis.

Russia has a long history of timing cyber attacks to offensive operations, going back to Georgia in 2008. Russian cyber attacks have featured heavily in the Ukraine conflict, most significantly knocking out power on Christmas Eve 2015 for thousands of Ukrainians.

This autumn, Stealthcare first observed a Russian state-baked entity known as the Carbanak group develop a new phishing campaign, using deceptive emails to convince targets to click links and download malware around Oct. 25. The targets were government agencies in Ukraine and across Eastern Europe, according to CEO Jeremy Samide. Attached to the emails were PDFs with links and other pieces of code that, when executed, would allow the attacker to steal or exfiltrate data and gain control over important computer functions. While Samide said he couldn’t say which government entities were targeted, because of sensitivities surrounding the target, he said they would have had information related to Ukrainian foreign and naval affairs, information that would have been very useful if you wanted to engineer a maritime crisis. Samide says there is “no doubt” that this was a Kremlin-led reconnaissance effort to prepare for the Kerch Strait crisis.

targeted Ukrainian government agencies with a backdoor attack called Pterodo, tailored to Windows, a few days before Nov. 20, when Stealthcare first reported seeing it.

On Nov. 26, just Russia seized Ukrainian vessels and imprisoned Ukrainian sailors, Stealthcare observed a second, coordinated attack by the Carbanak group aimed at key Ukrainian government and military targets. The malware linked to the phishing attack would have allowed for the theft of data or emails.

The spyware war has since heated up on both sides. Earlier this week, Stealthcare observed a new phishing aimed at Russian entities involving  PDF documents loaded with malware. “It’s not clear as to what targets it actually hit,” said Samide, who couldn’t yet name the source, but some of the documents “appear to be masquerading as health documents from Moscow based hospitals,” he said.

“We now know that the latest attack retaliating against Russia is a highly targeted attack against their FSBI ‘Polyclinic No.2,’ which is affiliated to the Presidential Administration of Russia.  Most notably, the lure document used in the attack exploits the latest Flash zero day vulnerability,” he told Defense One in an email. “The threat actor exhibits the tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) of an Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) actor. The document that is being delivered shows a questionnaire for staff of the Moscow-based hospital, but it secretly executes malicious code in the background.”

Russian cyber offensive operations are a growing concern for U.S. policymakers, particularly Democratic Sen. Mark Warner from Virginia, ranking member of the Senate intelligence committee. “Countries like Russia are increasingly merging cyberattacks with traditional information operations,” he said at the Center for New American Security, in Washington on Friday. “This emerging brand of hybrid, cyber warfare exploits our greatest strengths our openness and the flow of ideas. Unfortunately, we just aren’t waking up to that fact.”

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