KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — A cyberattack left a number of Ukrainian government websites temporarily unavailable on Friday, officials said.
While it wasn’t immediately clear who was behind the cyberattack, the disruption came amid heightened tensions with Russia and after talks between Moscow and the West failed to yield any significant progress this week.
Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Oleg Nikolenko told The Associated Press it was too soon to tell who could have been behind the attack, “but there is a long record of Russian cyber assaults against Ukraine in the past.”
Moscow had previously denied involvement in cyberattacks against Ukraine.
The websites of the country’s Cabinet, seven ministries, the Treasury, the National Emergency Service and the state services website, where Ukrainians’ electronic passports and vaccination certificates are stored, were temporarily unavailable Friday as a result of the hack.
The websites contained a message in Ukrainian, Russian and Polish, saying that Ukrainians’ personal data has been leaked into the public domain. “Be afraid and expect the worst. This is for your past, present and future,” the message read, in part.
Ukraine’s State Service of Special Communication and Information Protection said that no personal data has been leaked. The country’s minister for digital transformation, Mykhailo Fedorov, said later on Friday that “a large part” of the affected websites have been restored.
Victor Zhora, deputy chair of the State Service of Special Communication, said no critical infrastructure was affected. Zhora told a news conference Friday that about 70 websites of both national and regional government bodies have been affected by the attack.
The hack amounted to a simple defacement of government websites, said Oleh Derevianko, a leading private sector expert and founder of the ISSP cybersecurity firm. The hackers got into a content management system they all use.
“They didn’t get access to the websites themselves,” Derevianko said.
Derevianko said the hacker may have gained access to the hacked content management system long ago so the question to consider is the timing of the defacement and the provocative message.
“It could be just a regular information operation (seeking) to undermine the government’s capability and to create and enhance uncertainty,” added Derevianko. It could also possibly be “part of a planned hybrid attack or longer term and more sophisticated cyber operation which is underway but has not culminated.”
The main question, said Derevianko, is whether this is a standalone hacktivist action or part of a larger state-backed operation.
Tensions between Ukraine and Russia have been running high in recent months after Moscow amassed an estimated 100,000 troops near Ukraine’s border, stoking fears of an invasion. Moscow says it has no plans to attack and rejects Washington’s demand to pull back its forces, saying it has the right to deploy them wherever necessary.
The Kremlin has demanded security guarantees from the West that NATO deny membership to Ukraine and other former Soviet countries and roll back the alliance’s military deployments in Central and Eastern Europe. Washington and its allies have refused to provide such pledges, but said they are ready for the talks.
High-stakes talks this week between Moscow and the U.S., followed by a meeting of Russia and NATO representatives and a meeting at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, failed to bring about any immediate progress.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Friday that the 30-country military organization will continue to provide “strong political and practical support” to Ukraine in light of the cyber attacks.
“In the coming days, NATO and Ukraine will sign an agreement on enhanced cyber cooperation, including Ukrainian access to NATO’s malware information sharing platform,” Stoltenberg said in a statement.
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said Friday that the 27-nation bloc is ready to mobilize all its resources to provide technical assistance to Ukraine and help it improve its capacity to weather cyberattacks.
Borrell told a a meeting of EU foreign ministers in the French port city of Brest that the bloc would mobilize its cyber rapid response teams. “We are going to mobilize all our resources to help Ukraine cope with these cyberattacks,” Borrell said. “Sadly, we expected this could happen.”
Asked who could be behind the attack, Borrell said: “I can’t point at anybody because I have no proof, but one can imagine.”
Russia has long history of launching aggressive cyber operations against Ukraine, including a hack of its voting system ahead of 2014 national elections and an assault the country’s power grid in 2015 and 2016. In 2017, Russia unleashed one of most damaging cyberattacks on record with the NotPetya virus that targeted Ukrainian businesses and caused more than $10 billion in damage globally.
Ukrainian cybersecurity professionals have been fortifying the defenses of critical infrastructure following state-backed Russian attacks that temporarily disabled parts of Ukraine’s power grid in the winters of 2015 and 2016, and the crippling NotPetya cyberattack.
Zhora has told the AP that officials are particularly concerned about Russian attacks on the power grid, rail network and central bank.
Experts have said recently that the threat of another such cyberattack is significant as it would give Russian President Vladimir Putin the ability to destabilize Ukraine and other former Soviet countries that wish to join NATO without having to commit troops.
“If you’re trying to use it as a stage and a deterrent to stop people from moving forward with NATO consideration or other things, cyber is perfect,” Tim Conway, a cybersecurity instructor at the SANS Institute, told The Associated Press in an interview last week.
Conway was in Ukraine last month conducting a simulated cyberattack on the country’s energy sector. The U.S. has been investing in improving Ukraine’s cyber defenses for several years through various departments, like the Department of Energy and USAID.
The White House didn’t immediately respond to a request seeking comment.
John Hultquist, vice president of intelligence analysis at cybersecurity firm Mandiant, said while it’s too soon to say who is behind the defacements, such actions are in the Russian government’s playbook. Russian hackers were blamed for defacing Georgian websites in 2019.
Frank Bajak reported from Boston. Catherine Gaschka in Brest, France, Dasha Litvinova in Moscow, Alan Suderman in Richmond, Virginia, and Eric Tucker in Washington, contributed to this report.
Yuras Karmanau And Frank Bajak, The Associated Press
NATO outlines ‘deterrence’ plan as tensions with Russia soar
BRUSSELS (AP) — Tensions soared Monday between Russia and the West, with NATO outlining a series of potential troop and ship deployments and Ireland warning that upcoming Russian war games off its coast would not be welcome while concerns abound that Moscow is planning to invade Ukraine.
The Western alliance’s statement summed up moves already announced by individual member countries — but restating them under the NATO banner appeared aimed at showing the alliance’s resolve. It was just one of a series of announcements that signaled the West is ramping up its rhetoric in the information war that has accompanied the Ukraine standoff.
Russia has massed an estimated 100,000 troops near Ukraine’s border and is demanding that NATO promise it will never allow Ukraine to join and that other actions, such as stationing alliance troops in former Soviet bloc countries, be curtailed. Some of these, like any pledge to permanently bar Ukraine, are non-starters for NATO — creating a seemingly intractable standoff that many fear can only end in war.
Russia denies it is planning an invasion, and has said the Western accusations are merely a cover for NATO’s own planned provocations. Recent days have seen high-stakes diplomacy that failed to reach any breakthrough and maneuvering on both sides.
On Monday, NATO said that it is beefing up its “deterrence” in the Baltic Sea area. Denmark is sending a frigate and deploying F-16 war planes to Lithuania; Spain is sending four fighter jets to Bulgaria and three ships to the Black Sea to join NATO naval forces; and France stands ready to send troops to Romania. The Netherlands also plans to send two F-35 fighter aircraft to Bulgaria from April.
Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance will “take all necessary measures to protect and defend all allies.” He said: “We will always respond to any deterioration of our security environment, including through strengthening our collective defense.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov charged that it was NATO and the U.S. who were behind “tensions escalating” in Europe, not Russia.
“All this is happening not because of what we, Russia, are doing. This is happening because of what NATO, the U.S. are doing,” Peskov said during a conference call with reporters. He also cited U.S. media reports suggesting that Russia is evacuating its diplomats from Ukraine, something officials in Moscow denied.
The NATO announcement came as European Union foreign ministers sought to put on a fresh display of unity in support of Ukraine, and paper over concerns about divisions on the best way to confront any Russian aggression.
In a statement, the ministers said the EU has stepped up sanction preparations and they warned that “any further military aggression by Russia against Ukraine will have massive consequences and severe costs.”
Separately, the EU also committed to increase financial support for embattled Ukraine, vowing to push through a special package of 1.2 billion euros ($1.4 billion) in loans and grants as soon as possible.
The West is nervously watching Russian troop movements and war games in Belarus for any signs that a new invasion of Ukraine is imminent. Russia has already invaded Ukraine once, annexing the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. Moscow has also supported pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists fighting the Kyiv government in the Donbass region. Fighting in eastern Ukraine has killed around 14,000 people and still simmers.
Asked whether the EU would follow a U.S. move and order the families of European embassy personnel in Ukraine to leave, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said: “We are not going to do the same thing.” He said he is keen to hear from U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken about that decision.
Britain on Monday also announced it is withdrawing some diplomats and dependents from its embassy in Kyiv. The Foreign Office said the move was “in response to the growing threat from Russia.”
Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Oleg Nikolenko, said the U.S. decision was “a premature step” and a sign of “excessive caution.” He said that Russia is sowing panic among Ukrainians and foreigners in order to destabilize Ukraine.
Germany has issued no order, but it has announced that the families of embassy staffers may leave if they wish. Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock stressed that “we must not contribute to unsettling the situation further; we need to continue to support the Ukrainian government very clearly and above all maintain the stability of the country,”
Arriving at the EU meeting, Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said he would inform his counterparts that Russia plans to holds war games 240 kilometers (150 miles) off Ireland’s southwest coast — in international waters but within Ireland’s exclusive economic zone.
“This isn’t a time to increase military activity and tension in the context of what’s happening with and in Ukraine.” Coveney said. “The fact that they are choosing to do it on the western borders, if you like, of the EU, off the Irish coast, is something that in our view is simply not welcome.”
Some of the member countries closest to Russia — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — have confirmed that they plan to send U.S.-made anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine, a move endorsed by the United States.
But questions have been raised about just how unified the EU is. Diverse political, business and energy interests have long divided the 27-country bloc in its approach to Moscow. Around 40% of the EU’s natural gas imports come from Russia, much of it via pipelines across Ukraine — and many are skittish about being cut off from that supply in winter, with prices already soaring.
The EU’s two major powers appear most cautious. French President Emmanuel Macron has renewed previously rejected calls for an EU summit with Putin.
Late on Saturday, the head of the German navy, Vice Admiral Kay-Achim Schoenbach, resigned after coming under fire for saying that Ukraine would not regain the Crimean Peninsula, and for suggesting that Putin deserves “respect.”
Still, diplomats and officials said hard-hitting sanctions are being drawn up with the EU’s executive branch, the European Commission. They were reluctant to say what the measures might be or what action by Russia might trigger them, but said they would come within days of any attack.
This story has been updated to correct that France has said it is ready to send troops to Romania, not Bulgaria. ___
Associated Press writers Yuras Karmanau in Kyiv, Ukraine, Dasha Litvinova in Moscow, Geir Moulson in Berlin, Aritz Parra in Madrid, Mike Corder in The Hague, and Raf Casert in Brussels contributed.
Lorne Cook, The Associated Press
UAE says it intercepted 2 ballistic missiles over Abu Dhabi
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — The United Arab Emirates intercepted two ballistic missiles fired by Yemen’s Houthi rebels over the skies of Abu Dhabi early Monday, authorities said, the second attack in a week that targeted the Emirati capital.
The missile fire further escalates tensions across the Persian Gulf, which previously had seen a series of assaults near — but never indisputably on — Emirati soil. It comes during Yemen’s yearslong war and the collapse of Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers. American troops at Al-Dhafra Air Base in the capital took shelter in bunkers during the attack.
The attacks threaten the business-friendly, tourism-focused efforts of the Emirates, a federation of seven sheikhdoms on the Arabian Peninsula also home to Dubai. For years, the country has marketed itself as a safe corner of an otherwise-dangerous neighborhood.
Videos on social media showed the sky over Abu Dhabi light up before dawn Monday, with what appeared to be interceptor missiles racing into the clouds to target the incoming fire. Two explosions later thundered through the city. The videos corresponded to known features of Abu Dhabi.
The state-run WAM news agency said that missile fragments fell harmlessly over Abu Dhabi.
The Emirates is “ready to deal with any threats and … it takes all necessary measures to protect the state from all attacks,” WAM quoted the UAE Defense Ministry as saying.
The missile fire disrupted traffic into Abu Dhabi International Airport, home to the long-haul carrier Etihad, for about an hour after the attack.
Houthi military spokesman Yehia Sarei claimed the attack in a televised statement, saying the rebels targeted several sites in the UAE with both Zulfiqar ballistic missiles and drones, including Al-Dhafra Air Base. He warned the UAE would continue to be a target “as long as attacks on the Yemeni people continue.”
“We warn foreign companies and investors to leave the Emirates!” Sarei shouted from a podium. “This has become an unsafe country!”
The Dubai Financial Market closed down nearly 2% after the attack, with nearly every company trading down. The Abu Dhabi Securities Exchange also fell slightly.
At Al-Dhafra, which hosts both American and British forces, U.S. troops took shelter in bunkers during the attack, the U.S. Air Force’s Mideast command said. Al-Dhafra is home to the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing and has seen armed drones and F-35 stealth fighters stationed there.
“U.S. military forces successfully reacted to multiple inbound threats during an attack near Abu Dhabi,” the Air Force said, without elaborating. Videos on social media suggested outgoing interceptor fire came from the base.
The U.S. Embassy in Abu Dhabi later issued a security alert to Americans living in the UAE, warning citizens to “maintain a high level of security awareness.” The alert included instructions on how to cope with missile attacks, something unheard of previously in the UAE, a tourist destination home to skyscraper-studded Dubai and its long-haul carrier Emirates.
“If these types of attacks end up occurring on a weekly basis as they do in the Saudi Arabia … that will shift the perception of the threat landscape in the UAE,” said Torbjorn Soltvedt, an analyst with risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft. “The concern is now the contagion is going to be broader if we start to see attacks against civilian infrastructure.”
The Emirati Defense Ministry later tweeted out a black-and-white video that it said showed an F-16 striking the ballistic missile launcher used in the Abu Dhabi attack. The Defense Ministry identified the site as being near al-Jawaf, a Yemeni province around 1,400 kilometers (870 miles) southwest of Abu Dhabi.
The state-linked newspaper The National in Abu Dhabi identified the F-16 as Emirati, raising the question of how directly involved the UAE now is in the fighting after withdrawing most of its ground forces in 2019. The Emiratis continue to back militias on the ground, including the Giants Brigade, which has made advances against the Houthis in recent weeks.
The Zulfiqar ballistic missile, believed to have a range of 1,500 kilometers (930 miles), is modeled after the Iranian Qiam missile, according to a report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Iran denies directly arming the Houthis, though United Nations experts, Western nations and analysts have linked weapons in the rebels’ arsenal back to Tehran.
“It’s got the classic elements of the coercive strategy,” said Tim Wright, a research analyst at IISS. “In this case, it’s to make them back down on their support” of the Giants Brigade.
The attack came a week after Yemen’s Houthi rebels claimed an attack on the Emirati capital targeting the airport and an Abu Dhabi National Oil Co. fuel depot in the Mussafah neighborhood with drones and cruise missiles. That attack on the fuel depot killed three people and wounded six others.
New, high-resolution satellite photographs obtained by The Associated Press from Planet Labs PBC showed repair work still ongoing at the fuel depot Saturday. Emirati officials have not released images of the attacked sites, nor allowed journalists to see them.
In recent days, a Saudi-led coalition that the UAE backs unleashed punishing airstrikes targeting Yemen, knocking the Arab world’s poorest country off the internet and killing over 80 people at a detention center.
The Houthis had threaten to take revenge against the Emirates and Saudi Arabia over those attacks. On Sunday, the Saudi-led coalition said a Houthi-launched ballistic missile landed in an industrial area in Jizan, Saudi Arabia. The missile tore a deep crater in the ground, television footage showed, and slightly wounded two foreigners of Bangladeshi and Sudanese nationality.
The hard-line Iranian daily newspaper Kayhan, whose editor-in-chief was appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, just Sunday published a front-page article quoting Houthi officials that the UAE would be attacked again with a headline: “Evacuate Emirati commercial towers.”
The newspaper in 2017 had faced a two-day publication ban after it ran a headline saying Dubai was the “next target” for the Houthis.
Associated Press writers Isabel DeBre, Malak Harb and Lujain Jo in Dubai, Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Iran, and Samy Magdy in Cairo contributed to this report.
Jon Gambrell, The Associated Press
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