Russia launched a staggering number of destructive cyber attacks against Ukraine in the early days and weeks of its full-scale offensive that required digital security defenders to engage in “hand-to-hand combat in the cyber domain,” Sandra Joyce, the executive vice president of global intelligence at Mandiant, said at Semafor’s Securing the Digital Future event.
“From a cyber defender’s perspective, it was a dramatic back and forth,” Joyce said on Tuesday. “It was a harrowing first days, weeks and months.”
She said that Russia used more wipers — destructive malware that if successfully deployed destroys user data — against Ukraine in the first four months of the war than Mandiant saw in the past eight years while supporting Ukraine’s digital defenses.
But Russia’s tactics shifted, she said, when it became clear that Moscow would not succeed in quickly toppling Kyiv. Joyce said Russia’s initial destructive tactics — which included targeting a civilian missile alert system — seemed designed to support a quick invasion. More than a year and a half since the large-scale invasion began, Ukraine is pressing forward with its counteroffensive.
“I always am surprised to hear that people think the cyber thing didn’t happen because it certainly happened,” Joyce said. “[The Russians] weren’t successful in their ultimate aim, but they did show a tremendous capability when it comes to destructive attacks.”
Dmitri Alperovitch, executive chairman of Silverado Policy Accelerator, said during Semafor’s event that the Russians historically have been effective at intelligence collection but “quite atrocious” at actually analyzing and disseminating the intelligence they gather.
He pointed to the news Tuesday morning that Ukraine had used a long-range missile system quietly delivered by the U.S. to conduct a surprise strike on military airfields in Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine. The strike using the missile system — known as ATACMS — destroyed multiple Russian helicopters.
“It’s been advertised for weeks, if not months, that ATACMS were likely going to be sent to Ukraine, there was a lot of speculation about the targeting of this very airfield,” Alperovitch said. “And yet, the Russians just left them out there on the airfield.”