© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Power transmission lines are seen on a frosty day outside the town of Monchegorsk in Murmansk region, Russia October 31, 2019. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov
By Joel Schectman, Christopher Bing and James Pearson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -A Ukrainian cyber guerrilla warfare group plans to launch digital sabotage attacks against critical Russian infrastructure such as railways and the electricity grid, to strike back at Moscow over its invasion, a hacker team coordinator told Reuters.
Officials from Ukraine’s defense ministry last week approached Ukrainian businessman and local cybersecurity expert Yegor Aushev to help organize a unit of hackers to defend against Russia, Reuters previously reported.
On Monday, Aushev said he planned to organize hacking attacks that would disrupt any infrastructure that helps bring Russian troops and weapons to his country.
“Everything that might stop war,” he told Reuters. “The goal is to make it impossible to bring these weapons to our country.”
Aushev said his group has already downed or defaced dozens of Russian government and banking websites, sometimes replacing content with violent images from the war. He declined to provide specific examples, saying it would make tracking his group easier for the Russians.
Russia calls its actions in Ukraine a “special operation” that it says is not designed to occupy territory but to destroy its southern neighbor’s military capabilities and capture what it regards as dangerous nationalists.
A Ukrainian defense attache in Washington declined to comment on Aushev’s group or its relationship with the defense ministry. Aushev said his group has so far grown to more than 1,000 Ukrainian and foreign volunteers.
The group has already coordinated with a foreign hacktivist organization that carried out an attack on a railway system.
After word spread of the formation of Aushev’s team, the Belarusian Cyber Partisans, a Belarus-focused hacking team, volunteered to attack Belarusian Railways because they said it was used to transport Russian soldiers.
The Cyber Partisans disabled the railway’s traffic systems and brought down its ticketing website, Bloomberg News reported on Sunday.
On Monday, a Cyber Partisans spokeswoman told Reuters the group carried out those attacks and confirmed her organization was now working with Aushev’s group.
The spokeswoman said because her group had brought down the reservation system, passengers could only travel by purchasing paper tickets in person. She sent Reuters a photo of a paper, handwritten ticket issued on Monday.
“We fully side with Ukrainians,” she said. “They are now fighting for not only their own freedom but ours too. Without an independent Ukraine, Belarus doesn’t stand a chance.”
Reuters could not confirm attacks against the Belarus railway’s traffic system. The company’s reservation website was down on Tuesday afternoon. A railway spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
Officials at the Russian embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told a Russian news outlet on Tuesday that Russian embassies were under cyberattack by “cyber terrorists from Ukraine.”
Beyond striking back at Moscow, Aushev said his team would help Ukraine’s military hunt down undercover Russian units invading cities and towns.
He said his group had discovered a way to use cellphone tracking technology to identify and locate undercover Russian military units moving through the country, but declined to provide details.
Russian troops are reportedly using commercial cell phones in Ukraine to communicate, multiple media outlets reported.
Over the last week, numerous Russian government websites have been publicly interrupted by reported distributed denial of service (DDoS) style attacks, including one for the office of President Vladimir Putin.