Good morning, and TGIF!
Today is apparently a day to dress in blue, to celebrate salespeople and employee appreciation, marching bands and toy soldiers, scrapbooking and pound cake. It’s also the National Day of Unplugging, which might just seem like the safest option by the time you read to the end of this newsletter!
Yesterday I provided a quick overview of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, which began 9 days ago, and which some call a “War Against Europe.” I described the brutal bombardment by Russian forces and the mobilization of NATO and the EU in response, the destruction of PSE campuses, scattering of a million refugees, and some ways in which higher ed worldwide has started to offer aid.
But Putin’s war on Ukraine doesn’t just affect Europe, or global politics – it is already having impacts beyond the planet, in space and cyberspace…
As a fading global superpower with ambitions in outer space, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the international backlash in response, has repercussions beyond our atmosphere…
The Russian space agency, Roscosmos, has suspended all co-operation with Europe and the US in the wake of sanctions imposed over the Ukraine invasion. Roscosmos says it will no longer service RD-180 rocket enginesin the US, and will not cooperate with Germany on joint experiments aboard the ISS. NASA is no longer welcome to participate in Russia’s Venera-D probe of Venus in 2029, and the ESA says its joint ExoMarsmission is now very unlikely to launch in 2022. Authors from McGill’s Institute of Air and Space Law observe that this comes just months after Russia “conducted an anti-satellite missile test that endangered every user of outer space,” and warn that “a war in space would have catastrophic consequences for everyone, and the devastation and its impact on civilian lives and societies would be unimaginable.” Satellite imagery has been critical in monitoring the situation in Ukraine, but if the GPS network were disrupted it would confuse navigation systems and cripple the global financial system as well. The Conversation
The End of the ISS
4 NASA astronauts, 1 German, and 2 Russian cosmonauts are working side-by-side aboard the International Space Station, 408km above the warzone in Ukraine. The ISS has symbolized peaceful collaboration for 24 years, involving 5 space agencies and 15 countries. But the project started “in another, more hopeful era,” before the Cold War started heating up again (so to speak). Last October, a Soyuz spacecraft apparently malfunctioned and caused the entire ISS to start spinning out of control. Last week, US president Joe Biden warned that sanctions would “degrade” Russia’s space program, prompting the head of Roscosmos to tweet that without Russia, “who will save the ISS from an uncontrolled descent out of orbit and a fall on the United States or Europe?” (The ISS does maintain its orbit thanks to periodic boosts from Russian resupply ships, but such a deorbit would take several years to occur. Since 2020, NASA astronauts have been shuttled to and from the ISS via SpaceX rockets as well as Soyuz craft. Experts assure us that NASA could continue running the ISS without Roscosmos if necessary.) An Arizona State U prof anticipates Russia will “leave or be asked to leave” the ISS within the year. (One Texas congressman agrees.) An MIT prof speculates that Russia could even separate its modules from the ISS and try to operate it independently. Sadly, the ISS is scheduled for decommissioning in 2031, and NASA won’t be cooperating with Roscosmos in the future, but competing: the US, Canada, Europe and Japan are partnering on an orbiting lunar outpost, while Russia and China are planning their own moonbase. Washington Post | Scientific American | Newsweek
“If you block cooperation with us, who will save the ISS from an uncontrolled descent out of orbit and a fall on the United States or Europe?” – Dmitry Rogozin, director general of Roscosmos
“As more and more nations are active in space, it’s more important than ever that the United States continues to lead the world in growing international alliances and modeling rules and norms for the peaceful and responsible use of space.” – Bill Nelson, NASA administrator (in more peaceful times)
Russian Satellites Hacked?
Last week, a Twitter account purportedly linked to hacker group Anonymous declared that the group was “officially in cyberwar against the Russian government,” and claimed to be attacking Russian websites. Then on Tuesday, NB65 hackers affiliated with Anonymous tweeted they had “shut down the control center” of Roscosmos, eliminating Russia’s control of their own spy satellites. Rogozin angrily rejected the claim, and reported all systems were operating normally; he also warned that “offlining” a nation’s satellites would be a justification of war. (One US expert observes that “blinding nuclear command and control or early warning satellites could be very destabilizing.” The US Space Force warned last year that satellites get hacked almost daily.) Yesterday, Vice reported that another group of hackers had breached the Russian IKI space research institute website, and defaced it in response to Rogozin’s tweets. The hackers released a selection of Roscosmos mission files, and a subdomain of the site related to the World Space Observatory Ultraviolet project was knocked offline. Reuters | Newsweek | Politico | Vice | The Verge
Internet Access Disrupted
Last weekend, internet monitors reported that connectivity has been disrupted in Ukraine, particularly in the south and east where Russian forces were concentrating their attacks. Ukraine’s main internet provider, GigaTrans, dropped below 20% of normal last Thursday. Districts in Kharkiv and Kyiv, particularly, showed clear signs of internet failure. California-based Viasat reported Monday that a “cyber event” created a “partial network outage… impacting internet service for fixed broadband customers in Ukraine and elsewhere” on its satellite network. Coincidentally, the outage began Feb 24, as Russian troops invaded Ukraine. Reuters | CNBC
Elon Musk to the Rescue?
In a war that is being livestreamed on TikTok, internet connectivity is essential – and of course, Ukraine has been experiencing significant internet disruptions since Russian artillery began hitting telecom sites around the country. But Elon Musk’s StarLink network already has 2,000+ satellites in low Earth orbit that can provide high-speed connectivity almost anywhere with an unobstructed view of the sky, using a 19” ground-level satellite dish and terminal. Last weekend, Ukraine’s vice-PM tweeted at Musk requesting help, and on Monday, a truckload of Starlink terminals arrived in Ukraine. Ukraine says the terminals are keeping crucial infrastructure connected and “saving lives.” But critics point out that StarLink terminals have been thwarted in the past by as little as a tree on the horizon, and a uToronto researcher points out that transmissions from ground receivers can become “beacons” for air strikes in wartime. (Yesterday, Musk warned Ukrainians that Russia might be spying on StarLink connections.) Musk is now getting requests from Russian citizens for StarLink access to censored websites – which would carry significant political risk. As Marina Koren puts it in The Atlantic: “The cult of personality surrounding Musk, coupled with the nature of Starlink’s high-flying operations, cast the SpaceX CEO as an almost godlike figure—our great internet saviour, making Wi-Fi rain down from the sky. But Musk is a businessman, not a philanthropist.” Newsweek | The Verge | The Atlantic
Russian hackers have been in the news repeatedly for years now, affecting democratic elections, disrupting institutional websites, shutting down major pipelines, hijacking data, and now providing virtual “air support” for troops on the ground…
Extensive Russian Hacks
The Kremlin has intelligence agency hackers and a web of cybercriminals (often based in other countries) to provide an invisible, insidious, and almost limitless battlefront on the war in Ukraine, often with plausible deniability for violating rules of war. Even before the invasion, US intelligence reported that FSB and GRU hackers had penetrated computer networks for Ukrainian military, electrical, finance, transportation and telecommunications infrastructure. They lurked in US defense contractors’ networks for 2 years or more. Electricity was knocked out in parts of Ukraine in Dec 2015 and 2016. In 2017, malware wiped out data at Ukrainian government ministries, banks and energy companies. Ukraine’s largest commercial bank, PrivatBank, was hit with a DDOS attack in early February. Since the invasion began, “wiper” malware infected computers at a Ukrainian bank and government contractors in Latvia and Lithuania. DDOS attacks shut down Ukrainian banks, government websites, including its defense ministry. The Kyiv Post says it has been under constant attack throughout the invasion. Washington Post | The Hill | Wired | Gizmodo | Ars Technica
It Should be Even Worse
And yet, overall, observers and experts are surprised that the Russian efforts in cyberwarfare have not been more coordinated or destructive: “I would have thought that by now, Russia would have disabled a lot more infrastructure around communications, power and water.” Usually, the most effective moment for disruptive cyberattacks is at the onset of a military operation, when it can undermine, confuse and demoralize opposing forces. Perhaps Russian hackers are holding back, conducting surveillance and gathering intelligence. We know the invasion was such a closely-held secret that it surprised Russian officers and troops, and perhaps front-line hackers were also caught unprepared. Quite possibly, Putin didn’t think cyber support would be necessary for a quick military campaign. Past cyberattacks on Ukraine have spilled over and caused global collateral damage that Putin may have wanted to avoid, or he may not have wanted to damage infrastructure in a territory he planned to occupy. Or just maybe, efforts by Ukraine and its allies to harden cyber defenses and block hacker attempts. It’s also possible that the global hacker community is sympathetic to the Ukrainian cause, “and as a result they’re sitting it out.” Washington Post | The Verge
“Put simply, it’s far easier to target the other side’s capabilities with artillery, mortars, and bombers than with exquisite and ephemeral cyber power.” – Erica Lonergan et al, cited in Washington Post
Hacktivists Back Ukraine
Since the Russian invasion began, more than 175,000 hackers sympathetic to Ukraine have launched DDOS attacks and defaced websites linked to the Kremlin, vandalized Russian TV stations and even defaced EV chargers with profanities against Putin. (See the supposed attacks on satellites by Anonymous, described above.) Hackers apparently tried to take down the entire .ru domain, and took down the websites of Gazprom, news agency RT, Belarusian weapons manufacturer Tetraedr, and the Moscow Stock Exchange. Hackers have been attacking the rail system in Belarus since January, and claim they are attempting to slow down Russian troop movements. Ukrainian newspaper Pravda published a leaked list of personal data on 120,000 Russian soldiers deployed in Ukraine. Conti, a notorious ransomware gang, declared its full support for Russia – and 2 days later was the target of a hack itself, with the leak of a year’s worth of private Jabber chat logs that disclosed bitcoin addresses and linked the group directly to the FSB. In general, the hacks have been largely symbolic gestures “thumbing a nose at the enemy,” but in the fog of cyberwar, there is a risk that inadvertent attacks could hack innocent targets, or spill over and escalate international tensions. Hacktivists could also draw enemy attention to security vulnerabilities already being quietly exploited by official intelligence agencies. Washington Post | Wired | Wired UK | Gizmodo
Clearly, “wartime norms don’t exist for cyber operations” and noncombatants worldwide may find themselves in a “digital war zone” as Russia responds to economic sanctions with asymmetric cyberattacks. Since mid-February, the White House has warned that Russian cyberattacks could support military operations or sow panic and destabilize Ukraine – but also that cyberassaults could occur against US and NATO government agencies, utilities and critical infrastructure as war escalated. Two weeks ago, the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency put out a “shields up” warning, noting that all American organizations were at risk. The Australasian Higher Education Cybersecurity Service is encouraging PSE to “enhance their cyber security posture… and adopt a heightened sense of awareness relating to the situation in Ukraine.” Australian universities are being told the sector is a likely target for cyber retaliation via DDOS attacks, hacking and ransomware. (And yet, 67% of PSE employees don’t think of themselves as hacker targets.) Cyberattacks can instantly disrupt business continuity: “When Saudi Aramco was hit by a cyberattack, 30,000 corporate laptops were turned into paperweights in the span of seconds.” Defense against cyberattack generally comes down to individual computer security: strong random passwords, multi-factor authentication, caution with spam email and text messages, consistent backup regimes, and prompt software security patches. “Effective cyber defense is a long game, requiring sustained strategic investment, not a last-minute bolt-on.” Harvard Gazette | Wall Street Journal | Harvard Business Review
“We do know that Russians have at least conducted reconnaissance activities against our critical infrastructure for years and may have implanted some sort of tools to impact these services in response to US or allied foreign policy action.” – Lauren Zabierek, Cyber project director, Harvard Kennedy School
Here’s a handy 9-min history lesson for context on Putin’s invasion of Ukraine…
War on Ukraine, Explained
Vox provides a quick summary, with helpful graphics, of European history since 1900, which helps explain Putin’s anxiety about losing Soviet territory and the entire Russian sphere of influence to NATO membership. Ukraine partnered with NATO in 1994, and with the EU in 2013. When Ukraine’s pro-Russian government rejected the EU, the people ousted the president. Since then, 14,000 Ukrainians have died in prolonged hostilities with Russia. In many ways, what’s most surprising is that Putin waited this long to launch a full invasion. YouTube
As always, thanks for reading, and I hope you have a great weekend!
I’ll be back Monday with a deeper look at the way western sanctions on Russia are affecting higher education.
Meanwhile, stay safe and be well!
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