Russia’s cyber warfare on Ukraine, and how it could harm Israel

“We will see more such attacks. Some of those attacks might be aimed against Israel as well," says cyber security expert Menny Barzilay.

 The view of military facility which was destroyed by recent shelling in the city of Brovary outside Kyiv on March 1, 2022. (photo credit: GENYA SAVILOV/AFP via Getty Images))
The view of military facility which was destroyed by recent shelling in the city of Brovary outside Kyiv on March 1, 2022.
(photo credit: GENYA SAVILOV/AFP via Getty Images))

While the boots-on-the-ground war between Russia and Ukraine only started a week ago, the aggressive Eastern European giant has been insidiously waging an invisible assault on its smaller neighbor for years leading up to Russia’s attack.

Menny Barzilay is a cyber security expert, a partner at Cytactic, and the CTO of the Cyber Research Center at Tel Aviv University. He explained how cyber warfare works, Russia’s overarching goals behind its cyber attacks, and how all of this could affect Israel.

“It’s very important to understand, firstly, that cyber warfare has its own timeline. It’s not aligned with what’s going on in the physical world, in the sense that it’s true that the troops on the ground only started invading Ukraine a few days ago, but the Russian forces invaded Ukraine in cyberspace years ago.”

If Russia has been attacking Ukraine on the digital front for so long, why hasn’t it been treated as a big deal?

“Well, the way our brain works is that our brain is equipped to deal with threats that can be identified through our senses: if you can see it, smell it, taste it, hear it or touch it, our brain perceives it as a threat. In cyberspace, we cannot feel, we cannot taste, we cannot see – we can only hear about these attacks and believe that they are there.

So that creates a situation where there is some kind of legitimacy to attack in cyberspace, which does not exist, obviously, in physical space.”

“For example, if Israel sends one soldier to Russia with one gun and one bullet, to shoot one target in Russia, a war will start that might influence the entire world. One soldier, one gun, one shot. But if 10,000 Russian hackers attack the United States, and 20,000 American hackers attack Russia, you’ll see a situation where the two presidents meet, shake hands and talk about what they can do to better promote world peace.”

 Menny Barzilay, Partner at Cytactic and, CTO at the Cyber Research Center, TAU. (credit: MENNY BARZILAY) Menny Barzilay, Partner at Cytactic and, CTO at the Cyber Research Center, TAU. (credit: MENNY BARZILAY)

So a war over the internet is considered better than a war on the ground, understandably – but it would also accomplish different goals. What is Russia hoping to achieve with its cyber warfare?

“Usually when one country attacks another country, [it is] trying to achieve one of a few goals. Goal number one, and the most traditional goal in cyberspace, would be gathering intelligence. Second, is hindering the stability of the government, like what Russia did with the US election in 2016.”

“Lastly, you have countries attacking one another in order to disrupt services to create, to some extent, physical damage. That’s amazing: you can create physical damage in one country, through hackers, to another country. For example, in 2010, the world heard about Stuxnet, the worm program that attacked and hindered the nuclear program. It attacked the enrichment facilities in Iran and prevented Iran from reaching its nuclear goals in the time that they wanted to. That’s exactly what Russia is doing in Ukraine.”

“They have slowly gained access to more and more critical infrastructure in Ukraine. And right now, we can assume that there are dormant footholds in different critical infrastructure in Ukraine, waiting for the moment that [Russian] President [Vladamir] Putin will tell them ‘okay, this is the time to create a cyberattack.’”

With that said, how far do the shockwaves of impact radiate outward? Does Israel stand to be affected at all?

“Well, it affects us in various ways. Number one, there was one of the most famous attacks in cyberspace called NotPetya, which was, to some extent, a ransom attack, aimed at disrupting the Ukrainians' services like electric, banking, industry and other things as well. That was an attack that was issued by Russia. For some reason, while the attack was aimed against Ukraine, eventually the virus spread all around the world and created billions and billions and billions in damages to companies all over the world, including Israeli companies. It was one of the most devastating viruses ever; if Russia does something like that again, it could influence everyone and anyone around the world.”

“Another impact is that the more aggressive a country is in cyberspace, the more the acceptable level of attacks happening in cyberspace moves up. Typically, you wouldn’t see countries around the world actually disrupting other countries’ civilian infrastructure, hurting hospitals, hurting police, and so on. But if this will be done by Russia, it will be another milestone in the transformation of cyberspace to becoming one of the major fronts in war, and we will see more such attacks. Some of those attacks might be aimed against Israel as well.”

Is there anything that can be done to safeguard against these looming threats?

“It’s very hard to protect against such attacks. In the physical world, you can put your army between your civilians and the other armies, but in cyberspace, when state-sponsored hackers attack a country, what they actually attack is civilian facilities – you cannot put your army between the attackers and the those facilities, what you actually have to do is help those civilian facilities to protect themselves, share knowledge, intelligence and tools.”

“Cyberspace favors the attackers. If you are an advanced country, you have a lot of technology. That means that there are more things that can be attacked, and there are more targets connected to the internet. So the challenge is great.”

Can we expect to see any significant changes in cyberspace following the war?

“One of the things that Russia has talked about in the past is developing their own internal country-based internet, and they want to have the ability to disconnect this internet from the world. I would say that this is something that might lead to a situation where other countries will talk about that again, and that would obviously be a huge step back from what humanity has achieved.”