A “massive” cyber attack on Ukraine caught the world’s eye this morning as the country’s foreign ministry said its website, among others, had been taken down by unidentified hackers.

The attack, which took place overnight, saw websites for the foreign ministry, ministerial cabinet, security and defence council, treasury and more being defaced with messages telling Ukrainians that personal data had been stolen and that they should “be afraid and expect the worst.”

Immediately the whole world thought of Russia; Vladimir Putin’s armed forces invaded and occupied Crimea in 2014 and according to some is now eyeing up the remaining portion of the ex-Soviet nation. Until recent unrest in Kazakhstan a very large Russian military presence had been noted in eastern Ukraine, seemingly poised to continue the invasion.

NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg said: “I strongly condemn the cyber attacks on the Ukrainian government,” adding that the alliance would shortly enhance its cyber cooperation with the eastern European country.

Meanwhile, Ukraine itself held off on attribution, with a foreign ministry spokesman telling the Reuters newswire it was too early to say who was responsible – but adding Russia has done similar things in the past.

It does not appear, from either infosec industry sources or media coverage, that this was anything more than a headline-catching defacement; there are no mentions of non-public-facing digital infrastructure being attacked or taken offline, and the Ukrainian security service later said no personal data had been leaked. Analysts expect Russia would try to cripple digital comms networks as an immediate prelude to further invasion.

The attack reportedly targeted 15 websites in Ukraine that used the PHP-based October content management system, and resulted in websites being defaced. This included the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Cabinet of Ministers, Treasury, and others.

Ukraine’s CERT said the attackers got in by exploiting a months-old vulnerability in its Laravel-based CMS, OctoberCMS.

A summary of the vuln (rated 6.4 on the CVSS scale) explained that an account password reset can be exploited through a crafted request allowing malicious people to seize control of it.

Threat intel firm Cyjax, which meshes items of infosec interest with geopolitics, said that “suspicion of responsibility has also fallen on Russia due to the current situation in the region.”

The firm’s CISO, Ian Thornton-Trump, told The Register: “With global tensions and other protagonists who don’t look fondly on G-7, NATO or the EU, there is always a chance that a cyber-attack can be mis-attributed and becomes a false flag operation designed to increase tensions.”

John Hultquist, Mandiant’s veep of intelligence analysis, said in a canned statement: “Mass defacements of Ukrainian government sites are consistent with incidents we’ve seen in the past as tensions have grown in region. As far back as the invasion of Georgia in 2008 we saw a defacement of their Ministry of Foreign Affairs that juxtaposed the Georgian President with Hitler. As recently as 2019, Sandworm, GRU Unit 74455, carried out mass defacements in Georgia.”

At the time of writing, Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ website was inaccessible, with connection requests timing out. The ministry said it would be using social media for broadcasting essential messages.

“If it turns out that it was the October CMS vulnerability from last year,” Professor Alan Woodward of the University of Surrey told The Register, “it makes you wonder why they hadn’t patched it already with the available update.”

Prof Woodward added: “It’s difficult to see this as an attack that forms part of a prelude to war. However, with tensions so high, even minor actions could elicit a much more serious response: these things can escalate frighteningly quickly.”

Over the past few months Russia has deployed bellicose rhetoric about NATO expansion into what Putin sees as Russia’s sphere of influence, apparently considering that as something which applies to modern Russia. Despite assurances from Western leaders and NATO commanders that Ukraine will not become a formal member of the counter-Russian alliance, Russia continues posturing, posing and making laughable demands.

Russia maintains hacking units that have previously targeted the Ukrainian government; the 16th and 18th divisions of the FSB were last seen pumping malspam into random orgs’ mailboxes. Perhaps they’ve got their day jobs back. ®

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