Battle in the digital fog: Russian hackers against the West


    An analysis by Elem Raznochintsky

    The Russian hacker collective “Killnet” reported in May that it had declared cyber war on ten Russophobic countries. The background is the developments that followed the start of Russia’s military special operation in Ukraine. Among the countries named by “Killnet” is Ukraine itself, but also Poland, Great Britain and, of course, the USA.

    The latest example of this announcement is Monday’s attack on over a thousand Lithuanian websites. This first retaliation for the Lithuanian “Kaliningrad blockade” affects the highest administrative and governmental domains of Lithuania. The video was published last Friday and included the 48-hour reflection period, which the Lithuanian leadership has not yet used. According to the Russian hacker collective, the action will only be stopped if the request is granted.

    In addition, the previous strategy of the Lithuanian media was to hang this attack and the associated inconveniences on the smallest possible bell.

    A “regrettable” story of excellence

    So who are these ominous, politically motivated hackers from Russia? Their history goes back further than one would first think.

    Not much is known about these largely anonymous personalities, which also corresponds to the nature of the whole thing.

    It should be certain, however, that the advanced skills – the mathematical discipline of solving old problems and creating new, groundbreaking problems – were still taught and acquired in the scientific academy sector of the former Soviet Union.

    One thesis that has gained plausibility over time is that the origins of all of this can be traced back to the Stalin era and the mathematical faculties it founded then. This was the fertile ground offered by classical higher mathematics in the Soviet Union, later computer science and its branches.

    All programming languages, but also protocols for the Internet infrastructure of the time, were internalized by these Soviet, post-Soviet and later Russian students through classic memorization of the languages ​​and systems. In most cases, the then common luxury in the West, to test this knowledge and craft immediately on a computer in one’s own living room, was still denied or at least extremely limited in the Soviet Union. If a scientific institute or university had a working computer, there were sporadic opportunities to put one’s skills into practice.

    The social concept of a “personal computer” in an average household came in Russia with a civilizational delay. So a “luck in misfortune” followed, since Spartan circumstances then led to Spartans in the hacker sphere. Virtues such as discipline, deliberate defiance, clever resistance, martial resilience and an inventiveness born of necessity were and are the result.

    Not a hacker, but a rich symbolic example of the level of mathematical and scientific education in the Soviet Union and Russia just described is Grigori Perelman: a mathematician from St. Petersburg who proved the long-unproven mathematical problem called the “Poincaré conjecture” in 2006.

    If you watch a recent mini-documentary on the Chinese YouTube channel i-Life小品生活 Believe it or not, there was at least some sort of US-sponsored international high-performance competition among hackers before Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine. The three most dominant country representations were the United States of America, the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation. The Chinese hackers had to invest four hours before they could crack the given system. The US hackers had to take a whopping 2 hours and 20 minutes to complete the same advanced system intrusion. First place by a wide margin – with 18 minutes and 40 seconds – went to the hackers from Russia.

    The outcome of such competitions is one of the most compelling reasons why there really are only two types of hackers in the world in the relevant tech communities: Russian and all the rest.

    “You cannot serve the fatherland and mammon at the same time”

    On closer inspection, Russian hackers seem to have carved out a very deep and complex political worldview. Namely towards a post-Soviet, Russian patriotism that defies the Western axioms of perceived and propagated exceptionalism with all its might. There is evidence that this trend was beginning to take shape even in the Yeltsin era, when Russian patriotism and a thirst for renewed sovereignty were at their all-time lows. A period accompanied by an unprecedented infiltration of most Russian institutions with liberal, pro-Western ideology that was at least successful enough to mark the 1990s as a Washington geopolitical victory. To become aware of one’s historical legacy and technological responsibility in this climate, without a constructive central instruction, and to continue to develop oneself in an interdisciplinary way – especially politically – borders on a sociological miracle.

    Were there Russian hackers who, on the other hand, were not driven by such noble motives and who primarily longed for financial self-enrichment? Of course. You can still read about these cases, their arrests, mistakes, but also successful escapes.

    “Bots” and hackers

    The term “Russian bots” alone has a semantically suggestive effect: it implies automatism, submission, dehumanization, swarm character, unconditional aggressiveness and amorality, which, according to Western propaganda, are supposedly synonymous with the Russian state. The fact is that DDoS attacks, which mostly serve to paralyze websites and their offers, are achieved by so-called “botnets”. These “botnets” are devices that are connected to the Internet and hunt bundles of malware onto specific server structures. Of course, these “botnets” are controlled by hackers. “Killnet” has developed its very own “botnet”.

    Drawers for better understanding

    In the West, hackers often differentiate between the so-called “black hats”, “white hats” and “gray hats”. These ethical image categories have been borrowed from the western cinematic genre. According to this, the “black hats” are the anarchist enemies of the state, who act independently, often against the state and thus beyond the law. However, this does not necessarily mean that there is no moral code – just a lack of submission to the state. However, as is now well known, the state often tends to classify something as hostile if the person or collective escapes mere state control.

    In contrast, the “white hats” work as civil servants and obey the law. The “grey hats” are the always morally ambivalent agents who, depending on the problem and challenge, i.e. according to the respective context, can take the side of the state, but in the next situation are already able to re-enter the legal vacuum from outside.

    These categories are difficult to apply to the Russian “Killnet” hackers and their colleagues. On the one hand, they are definitely “black hats” since they act completely independently of the Russian state. At the same time, their activism and possibly “digital terrorism” against countries attacking Russia is consistent with Moscow’s raison d’etat, which could make them de facto “white hats,” or at least “grey hats.”

    While the Kremlin does not officially condone the activities of these hackers, professing neutrality and a lack of sympathy, the fact that these rebellious professionals are not being prosecuted in Russia is telling enough to at least be interpreted as willing connivance. This also includes hacker personalities such as Maksim Jakubets or Yevgeny Bogachev, both of whom are said to have caused great financial damage to the United States independently of one another.

    What’s more, hacker groups like “Killnet” have often even helped the Russian state to track down and digitally punish pro-Western hacktivists who tried to cause damage inside Russia.

    In the West, the much better-known hacker organization “Anonymous” has declared its hostility to “Killnet” and has taken the position of NATO and the current Kiev regime.

    Motifs emerge quickly

    Advanced hackers who are politically motivated are like ghosts in their sanctity. If a hacker driven by greed and ego can be stopped sooner or later, an idealistically driven hacker is much more cautious and deliberate in his digital locomotion. His goal is also a long-term one.

    This also emerges from the conversation with the leader of “Killnet” in April. He also explained that the actively initiated digital community of the troupe includes up to 4,500 people.

    The widespread moral code among Russian hackers is “Don’t work in Russia”. This means that no Russian systems, no Russian infrastructure should be cannibalized or attacked. “Work for the good of your country” is more the motto. Patriotically calibrated, this states that even if there are projects in which enrichment is one of the first priorities, they should be carried out in “unfriendly” states.

    The fact that “Killnet’s” video manifesto from May is a serious declaration of war is shown by its previous accounts, which already certify many attacks on western targets. There were the attacks on Czech television and on the Romanian and Moldovan government websites.

    The collective also presents a penchant for symbolic theatrics: the song playing in the background of the video is by far the most famous Soviet war song of the Great Patriotic War: “Священная война” (English: “Holy War”).

    Everyone is recommended the content of this song. Because there it is explained in absolutely unmistakable tones what the fascist enemy will have to deal with should he ever dare to go to war with the Soviet Union or its historical successor – today’s Russia.

    But now that sabers are being waved more and more in the West, while the chance of admitting serious mistakes to Moscow is rapidly disappearing, the Russian hacker collectives are already on the move with dug up digital hatchet.

    more on the subject – Is Germany ready for the blackout?

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