Category Archives: War Notes

Risky Business: Hackers for Ukraine vs Putin’s Techies

‘It’s the right thing to do’: the 300,000 volunteer hackers coming together to fight Russia

The Guardian: Ukraine appealed for a global army of IT experts to help in the battle against Putin – and many answered the call. [The Guardian spoke] to people on the digital frontline.

Kali learned how to use technology by playing with his grandfather’s phone. Now, the Swiss teenager is trying to paralyse the digital presence of the Russian government and the Belarussian railway.

Kali – and many others who contributed to this article – declined to share his real name because some of the action he is taking is illegal and because he fears Russian retaliation. He is one of about 300,000 people who have signed up to a group on the chat app Telegram called “IT Army of Ukraine”, through which participants are assigned tasks designed to take the fight to Vladimir Putin. In so doing, they are trying to level the playing field between one of the world’s superpowers and Ukraine as it faces bombardment and invasion.

The sprawling hacker army has been successful in disrupting Russian web services, according to NetBlocks, a company that monitors global internet connectivity. It says the availability of the websites of the Kremlin and the Duma – Russia’s lower house of parliament – has been “intermittent” since the invasion started. The sites for state-owned media services, several banks and the energy giant Gazprom have also been targeted.

“The crowdsourced attacks have been successful in disrupting Russian government and state-backed media websites,” says Alp Toker, the director of NetBlocks. He adds that Russia has attempted to mitigate the attacks and deter hackers by filtering access to certain websites, which has caused further disruption.

Like many of his peers, Kali was directed to the Telegram group, which has Ukrainian- and English-language versions, by Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s vice prime minister and minister for digital transformation. Fedorov, 31, has been using his vastly expanded Twitter profile to plead with executives at the world’s biggest tech firms to cut ties with Russia. . . .

While his home country has long maintained a policy of military neutrality, Kali was spurred to action when he saw Fedorov’s tweet. “I wanted to help and use my attacking skills to help Ukraine,” he says via Telegram. “I’m from Switzerland, but I’m a strong hacker and I’m so sorry for every Ukrainian. I do it because I stand with Ukraine and I want to help somehow. I think if we hack Russia’s infrastructure they will stop, maybe, because nothing will work any more.”

Kali says his parents aren’t especially keen on what he is doing, although he tries not to tell them much about it. And he is not the only one.

Caroline, a twentysomething from the New York metropolitan area, told her parents she had enlisted into the IT army just hours before we speak on the phone. “They’re starting to get concerned,” she says.

. . . Caroline felt compelled to act when she saw Fedorov’s tweet. She had seen how destructive the spread of disinformation had been during Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. . . ,

Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s vice prime minister and minister for digital transformation.
Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s vice prime minister and minister for digital transformation. Photograph: Ukrinform/Rex/Shutterstock

There was just one problem: she didn’t know what Telegram was. Unlike Kali, the former preschool teacher isn’t much of a hacker. At first, she was concerned that the app – which was founded by the exiled Russian billionaires Pavel and Nikolai Durov – was a trap. But, after some research, she downloaded it and joined the group.

She felt out of her depth when the group’s administrators asked for hackers to bombard Russian state websites with distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, by which websites are bombarded with traffic to make them unreachable. This is how many Russian government websites have been disabled since the invasion began.

But Caroline realised things were getting lost in the torrent of information. . . . She spends hours every day sharing information in the Telegram chat to help the masses of subscribers. “I can’t explain it,” she says. “It’s just something that’s so innately human that has been inspiring me, the more involved I get. I recognise I’m not special by any means, so all I’m doing is gathering all this information to try to dismantle these campaigns of disinformation that are going on.”***
Enrique is a Lithuanian IT expert in his mid-30s. He felt that joining the Telegram group was “the right thing to do”. “Growing up with your parents telling you stories about how they were exiled to Siberia lives with you your whole life,” he says. “We are scared that we will be next.”

. . . He is less focused on wrecking the Russian internet and more on co-opting ordinary Russians to rise up against their dictator.

“I hope the world can put pressure on Russian people so much that they would be willing to re-evaluate their upbringing, understand that people are asking them to help, look at what is really happening and perhaps they will rise up that way,” he says.

Enrique has been inspired by the bravery of the Ukrainian people. That includes those who have taken to the streets to defend their country – and those who have taken to their keyboards. Ukraine has 290,000 people who work in IT and is the world’s outsourcing tech desk. While many of them have given up their day jobs to fight for the army, others have signed up to the IT army.

That includes Sam, who works for a global advertising-technology company. He has been using his expertise to send what he calls “counter-propaganda” to Russians through advertising platforms. “We’ve been in a hybrid war and a direct war with Russia since 2014,” he says. “It was the same, but on a smaller scale. We understand how Russia acts: they do propaganda here, then inside their country, then try to share their vision to the global community.”

The Ukrainian advertising industry has sent what Sam calls “aggressive” videos that show captured Russian soldiers pleading with their mothers and trying to convince them about the reality of war in Ukraine. Others highlight the impact of sanctions on Russia and the strength of the Ukrainian army. “They will move everyone to act,” says Sam.

About 100 advertising specialists from 50 agencies are designing and disseminating adverts to try to raise awareness within Russia and Belarus of what Russia is doing, ducking and diving around advertising bans and platform closures.

Enrique has been impressed by the teamwork of the volunteer IT army. “I have never seen so many people wanting to do something in my whole life,” he says. “You ask for participants to crash something [break it] or run something and you have it.” . . .

Alex, a Ukrainian software engineer, says the Telegram group is mostly used for DDoS attacks. “I wish there were more things to do in terms of helping the IT part [of the war].” He doesn’t want to cut off Russia from the internet, but rather find a way of showing Russians images of the war.

This is what Anonymous, a hacking collective, claimed to have done with Russian TV channels this month. “My ideal way would be to do something that will demonstrate the truth for [Russians],” says Alex. However, suggestions for DDoS attacks are eagerly carried out. When links for target websites go up in the Telegram group, he says, “all of them are down” within half an hour.

Some cybersecurity experts are worried, though. “There are some risks in having this volunteer army,” says Alan Woodward, a professor of cybersecurity at the University of Surrey. He is concerned about the lack of accountability regarding who is directing the battle plan and the overarching strategy.

“At best, what they’re doing is running interference,” he says. “It may be a nuisance to the Russians, but the attacks we’ve seen so far haven’t really affected the Russian fighting capability to any decisive effect.”

Woodward says an army of 300,000 hackers will invariably include some bad seeds. “These volunteers might start attacking targets that are not really what the Ukrainian government wants,” he says. “This could be accidental. How often has ransomware spilled over and affected, say, a hospital? I don’t think anyone wants that.”

There is also a risk that such an open call could easily be co-opted by the Russians to generate negative headlines. “You never quite know who is in a volunteer group,” he says. “Not only could they do something unwanted in the name of Ukraine, but they could also do something that plays directly into the Russians’ rhetoric.”

The fear of infiltration is something that also concerns Agnes Venema, a national security and intelligence academic at the University of Malta. “How useful they are depends on how well you can vet them, how well you can coordinate them and how skilled they are,” she says. “Renaming Putin’s yacht is cute, but does the hacking of Russian television stations to play the Ukrainian anthem help the Ukrainians achieve their strategic goals?”

Despite her misgivings, Venema finds the corralling of volunteer forces remarkable. “I’m not one for throwing superlatives around, but I would say this level of civic engagement is unprecedented,” she says. Nonetheless, she says, it could quickly backfire. As soon as hackers start taking orders from the Ukrainian army, they drop their status as civilians and could be considered combatants, she says. “That means that these people are legitimate military targets,” she says.

Whether those defending Ukraine’s right to exist know or worry about that is another question. “I don’t care about it,” says Kali, who as we spoke was trying to DDoS a Russian news website that the Ukrainian IT army administrators had flagged as a source of disinformation. “I’ve never worried about it.”



Snapshots for a Grim New Week

March 14 War Notes Updates:

About Time– Pope Francis Speaks Out:
AP: VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis has decried the “barbarianism” of the killing of children and other defenseless civilians in Ukraine and pleaded for a stop to the attacks “before cities are reduced to cemeteries.”

In some of his strongest denunciations yet of the war in Ukraine, and in apparent reference to Russia, which invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, the pontiff said that “there are no strategic reasons that hold up” in the face of such armed aggression. Continue reading Snapshots for a Grim New Week

Big News: Top Money-Launderer Deutsche Bank Ditches Russian Biz; More Oligarch Superyachts Seized

March 11, 2022
Reuters: Deutsche Bank to wind down in Russia, reversing course after backlash
By Tom Sims, John O’Donnell and Frank Siebelt

Deutsche CEO had said exit “would go against our values”

Investors criticised Deutsche’s Russia presence
CEO’s 2021 pay up 20%
FRANKFURT, March 11 (Reuters) – Deutsche Bank (DBKGn.DE), which faced stinging criticism from some investors and politicians for its ongoing ties to Russia, said on Friday in a surprise move that it would wind down its business in the country.

Deutsche joins the ranks of Goldman Sachs (GS.N) and JPMorgan Chase (JPM.N), which were the first major U.S. banks to exit after Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. Those moves put pressure on rivals to follow.

Deutsche had resisted pressure to sever ties, arguing that it needed to support multinational firms doing business in Russia.

But on Friday evening in Frankfurt, the bank suddenly reversed course.

“We are in the process of winding down our remaining business in Russia while we help our non-Russian multinational clients in reducing their operations,” the bank said.

“There won’t be any new business in Russia,” Deutsche said.

A day earlier, Deutsche Bank’s Chief Executive Christian Sewing explained to staff why the bank was not withdrawing.

“The answer is that this would go against our values,” he wrote. “We have clients who cannot exit Russia overnight.”

Bill Browder, an investor who has spent years campaigning to expose corruption in Russia, said that Deutsche Bank staying was “completely at odds with the international business community and will create backlash, lost reputation and business in the West.”

“I would be surprised if they are able to maintain this position as the situation in Ukraine continues to deteriorate,” Browder told Reuters earlier on Friday.

The criticism came as Russian forces bearing down on Kyiv were regrouping northwest of the Ukrainian capital and Britain said that Moscow could now be planning an assault on the city within days. Continue reading Big News: Top Money-Launderer Deutsche Bank Ditches Russian Biz; More Oligarch Superyachts Seized

Moby Dick Redux: The Great Oligarch Yacht Hunt; and searching for a Ukraine End-Game Without Nukes

Two weighty reads for midweek
#1 – Fleeing sanctions, oligarchs seek safe ports for superyachts


WASHINGTON (AP) — The massive superyacht Dilbar stretches one-and-a-half football fields in length, about as long as a World War I dreadnought. It boasts two helipads, berths for more than 130 people and a 25-meter swimming pool long enough to accommodate another whole superyacht.

Dilbar was launched in 2016 at a reported cost of more than $648 million. Five years on, its purported owner, the Kremlin-aligned Russian oligarch Alisher Usmanov, was already dissatisfied and sent the vessel to a German shipyard last fall for a retrofit reportedly costing another couple hundred million dollars.

That’s where she lay in drydock on Thursday when the United States and European Union announced economic sanctions against Usmanov — a metals magnate and early investor in Facebook — over his ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin and in retaliation for the invasion of Ukraine.

“We are joining with our European allies to find and seize your yachts, your luxury apartments, your private jets,” President Joe Biden said during his State of the Union speech Tuesday night, addressing the oligarchs. “We are coming for your ill-begotten gains.” Continue reading Moby Dick Redux: The Great Oligarch Yacht Hunt; and searching for a Ukraine End-Game Without Nukes

War Notes: Thousands of Protesters Arrested in Russia; and More . . .

Reuters- More than 4,500 antiwar protesters arrested in one day in Russia, group says


On March 6, antiwar protesters were beaten with batons as they were arrested by Russian police in Yekaterinburg, Russia. (Reuters)

By Brittany Shammas and Reis Thebault
 — March 6 2022

More than 4,500 protesters were arrested Sunday at antiwar demonstrations across Russia, according to the independent human rights organization OVD-Info, as people risked jail time to denounce the nation’s war with Ukraine.

The scenes joined other displays of defiance in a country that has continued to clamp down on opposition to the invasion. Crowds chanted “No to war!” while streaming through Moscow and St. Petersburg in a pair of videos posted to Twitter. In another, a demonstrator being hauled away by law enforcement sang Ukraine’s anthem.

A woman was recorded telling a police officer she had survived the Nazi siege of Leningrad, the former name of St. Petersburg, and lost both her parents. Another woman added, “We have relatives, we have friends in Ukraine.”

“You came to support fascists?” the officer responded, a reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s justification for the war.

“What fascists?” the crowd asked.

The officer then gave an order: “Arrest everyone.”

Authorities on Sunday arrested at least 4,640 people across 56 cities in Russia, reported OVD-Info, which was declared a foreign agent by Russian authorities last year during Putin’s sweeping suppression of activists, rights groups and opposition figures. The group reported multiple instances of excessive force against protesters, including beatings and use of stun guns.

Among those detained were 13 journalists and 113 juveniles.
Russia’s interior ministry said earlier Sunday that police had arrested more than 3,500 people “for taking part in unauthorized rallies” in Moscow, St. Petersburg and elsewhere. The agency warned protesters that authorities would continue to target demonstrations and their organizers.

Love & War

John Stephens, who Zoomed with Kyiv Friends from Virginia

Quaker Bulletin, From Our Far-Flung Correspondents: John Stephens, northern Virginia USA:
I attended morning worship with the Friends in Kyiv at 2:15am our time last night.

Over 120 Friends from around the globe were connected on Zoom. Many of those were from Australia and New Zealand, but there were folks from Europe, and even a couple others from the U.S.

What was most striking to me was how “same” it was to any other unprogrammed Quaker gathering. They really were the same as us, all over-at least it seemed .. . .

Looking around the Zoom room, especially when someone spoke, it was almost like: “Hey, we have that guy in our Yearly Meeting, only with a different

From: “I’m a Cold War Historian. We’re in a Frightening New Era.”
By Mary Elise Sarotte, professor of historical studies at Johns Hopkins University

New York Times: The longevity of the [First] Cold War also gave both sides time and incentive to negotiate arms control agreements. Washington and its allies concluded a host of detailed treaties with Moscow that, while flawed, at least provided predictability and monitoring — all while serving to build a long-term relationship in managing nuclear danger.

In recent years, however, both sides rashly shed many of these accords, seeing them as outdated and inconveniently constraining. The New START Treaty is now the only restraint on the number and types of U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons — and it expires in 2026, with little hope of renewal.

Already gone are the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which George W. Bush abrogated in 2002, and the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty, from which Mr. Putin “suspended” Russian participation in 2007. And, most relevant to today’s crisis, in 2019 President Donald Trump abrogated the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty over U.S. claims of Russian violations and Chinese arms buildup (though China was not a party to the treaty).

Signed by President Ronald Reagan and the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty eliminated that class of weapons entirely. Now that it is no more, Mr. Putin claims to fear that the alliance could deploy such weapons on Ukrainian territory against Russian targets. He has cited that possibility, along with denying that Ukraine is a separate country, among his motivations for invading Ukraine.

Even if Moscow can be brought back to the negotiating table, which seems highly unlikely for the foreseeable future, it would take years of painstaking talks to resurrect these treaties. Their disappearance is especially grievous in light of other losses — of military-to-military communication, expelled embassy and consulate staff members — and the development of new forms of weapons, such as hypersonic missiles and cyberwarfare. Two of the world’s largest military powers are now functioning in near-total isolation from each other, which is a danger to everyone.

Another problem is cultural. The threat of thermonuclear conflict was omnipresent for those who came of age during the Cold War. Yet after decades of peace between the West and Russia, that collective cultural awareness has largely dissipated — even though the threat of nuclear conflict remains, and has, in the past week, ramped back up to levels unseen since the Cold War.

The Russian president has now definitively put an end to the post-Cold War era, which rested on an assumption that major European land wars were gone for good. . . .

Becoming a historian requires the ability to develop a sense of periodization. I sense a period ending. I am now deeply afraid that Mr. Putin’s recklessness may cause the years between the Cold War and the Covid-19 pandemic to seem a halcyon period to future historians, compared with what came after. I fear we may find ourselves missing the old Cold War.