Earth & Conservation

Hackers Expose Russia’s Role in Ukraine’s Insurgency

Ukrainian hacktivists have released thousands of emails from a top Putin aide that lay out Russian support for the rebellion in eastern Ukraine.

For the second time in a week, Ukrainian activists released a big batch of e-mails from a top Kremlin advisor who was the architect of Russia's involvement in Ukraine. The e-mails reveal that Russia's leaders are just as vulnerable to the sort of cyberattacks that experts say they have launched on other nations.

The Ukrainian cyber "hacktivists" aren't explaining how they got into the mailboxes of Vladislav Surkov, one of the architects of Russia's current political system, according to reporting by the BBC.

The emails support the well-established belief that Russia controls the separatist authorities in eastern Ukraine, who have been fighting a war with the Ukrainian government since the spring of 2014.

Among other things, they show a budget for ministries in the breakaway republics in Eastern Ukraine in Russian currency, as well as a map of Ukraine split into three sections "New Russia" to the east, "Lesser Russia" in the Center and "Galicia" to the west, the BBC report stated.

Interviews with the group's leaders in Kiev by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reveal that there's been a digital cyberwar of sorts between Ukrainian and Russian hackers that mirror the war of guns and tanks on the ground. The Ukrainian Cyber Alliance includes four hacker groups, CyberHunta, Falcons Flame, Trinity and RUH8 that oppose the Russian government and its involvement in Ukraine, the RFE/RL report stated.

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Their opponents are a Russian hacker group called CyberBerkut that has been blamed for attacks on Ukrainian ministries, a Ukrainian regional power grid and its presidential election in 2014. A related Russian group, called Cozy Bear, has been blamed for email leaks and digital mischief in the U.S. presidential election.

Experts at the Atlantic Council in Washington verified in recent days that the emails are authentic.

"It is with great certainty that they were authentic," said Maks Czuperski, director of the council's digital forensic research lab. "There was little evidence that it would be otherwise."

The first batch released last week included more than 3,000 emails from a Russian government e-mail address. The second batch out today was also a large dump, according to Czuperski.

"There's no such thing as a secure system when you are asking about cybersecurity," he said.

It's not clear what the political fallout of the email leak will be for Russian president Vladimir Putin or his circle of advisors. The leak is big news in Ukraine's capital Kiev, but not so much in Moscow, Czuperski said.

"The Russian news environment is more controlled and what is played on the nightly news is not independent," he said. "One thing is clear that it does provide a valuable working into the workings of the Kremlin architect of the Crimean takeover."

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Another Russia expert was less impressed at the technical abilities of the Ukrainian hackers. Simon Saradzhyan, director of the Russia Matters Project at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, noted that American teenagers have hacked unsecure government email accounts of U.S. officials in the past.

"Clearly, the very size of the cache shows that at least some must have been taken from government accounts," Saradzyan said. "There's nothing in there that stands out as surprising."

He noted that in June, Russian hackers leaked email correspondence between a former American NATO general, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and U.S. State Department officials about the possibility of the United States forcing conflict with Russia over Crimea in 2014.

"Its just tit for tat," said Saradzyan, a former Russian journalist. "Russia published leaks and now the Ukrainians are trying to retaliate."

The Ukrainian cyber-activists said that they will be releasing more emails from other Russian leaders in the coming days.

Photo: Russian Deputy Prime Minister Vladislav Surko WATCH: Canada And Russia's Complicated Alliance