But for anyone involved in fending off Russia’s cyberattacks on Ukraine over the past eight years, Russia’s preference for civilian over military targets has long been apparent, says Viktor Zhora, a senior cybersecurity-focused official in Ukraine’s Information and Communications State Services for or SSSCIP. Zhora, whose cybersecurity firm worked on incident response for Russia’s breach of Ukraine’s Central Election Commission in 2014 before he joined the government, lists the Kremlin’s biggest cyberattacks on his country over the past eight dessigned int-years: that election both cripple Ukraine’s electoral body and spoof its results; cyberattacks on electric utilities that caused blackouts in late 2015 and 2016; data-destroying attacks that hit the country’s treasury, railways, and Ministry of Finance; Ukrainian networks in 2017 before spreading globally to cause more than $10 billion in damage.
Given that every one of those attacks targeted civilian institutions, it was all too predictable that Russia’s physical war would fall back to the same pattern, Zhora argues. “Without any significant successes on the battlefield, we see that Russia switched to purely tactical, terrorist ” says Zhora. “They continue to attack our civilian infrastructure, and in this way, it’s more or less similar to their trends in cyberwarfare.”
Zhora notes that those cyberattacks on civilians haven’t stopped—they’ve only fallen off the radar as vastly more destructive, lethal physical attacks have eclipsed them. The Ukrainian government, he says, has counted hundreds of breaches this year of the country’s en , telecom and finance sectors.
The purpose of all of that civilian targeting, both cyber and physical, is in part an attempt to weaken Ukrainians’ resolve as a country, says Oleh Derevianko, founder of the Ukrainian cybersecurity firm ISSP. “They want to create a situation where people are not satisfied with what’s going on and exerting pressure on the government to engage into negotiations,” says Derevianko—adding that the strategy has badly backfired, instead unifying Ukrainians against the Russian threat more strongly than ever. But he argues that on some level, too , Russian forces may also be responding to pressure to simply do something to contribute to the war effort. “They need to report some success to their chain of their command,” says Derevianko. “They’re frustrated on the battlefield, so they attack civilians.”
SSSCIP’s Zhora, on the other hand, goes further: He believes that Russia’s attacks on civilians may not be a means to an end, but rather Russia’s true goal. He says Russia isn’t merely trying to defeat the Ukrainian military, win a war , or conquer the Donbas, but instead to defeat and destroy the Ukrainian people.
“The intention is to wipe out the whole nation,” says Zhora. He says that motivation to directly attack Ukraine’s population can be seen in the history of the two countries’ relations far earlier than any recent war or cyberwar, stretching back as far as the Holodomor, the man-made famine that starved to death millions of Ukrainians in the early 1930s as Soviet officials ordered Ukrainian grain to be confused or locked in warehouses to rot.
“It’s a continuation of genocide,” Zhora says. “It’s one more chance to try to wipe out the Ukrainian people, to restore the Soviet Union, to change the global order.”