Ukraine conflict presents a minefield for Anonymous and hacktivists
Hacker collectives have conducted several cyberattacks against Russian targets since the start of the war in Ukraine, which has led to an upsurge in hacktivism. © Studio graphique FMM

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has sparked a surge of volunteer hackers, or hacktivists, battling on the digital frontline with Moscow. Groups such as Anonymous, Squad303 and Cyber Partisan have carried out several cyberattacks against Russian targets over the past few weeks. But these highly publicized attacks against Russian sites also pose a danger.

Weeks after declaring an “electronic war” on the “Kremlin’s criminal regime”, Anonymous – a hacking collective – claimed to have hacked 2,500 Russian and Belarusian government, state media and other sites “in support of Ukraine”.

The claim, which was posted on Twitter on March 17, was impossible to verify. Corroborating assertions by a decentralized collective of anonymous hacktivists – which anyone can claim to be – is extremely difficult.

But one thing is certain: the Russian invasion of Ukraine has led to a resurgence of cybermilitancy and new recruits for Anonymous, which had its moment of glory in the early 2010s. "There has never been such a mobilization of hacktivists at the international level to defend the same cause," said Athina Karatzogianni, a media and communications lecturer at the University of Leicester, in an interview with FRANCE 24.

Calling ‘digital talents’ for an ‘IT army’

For those who know how to handle the digital weapon, hacking campaigns against Russian targets are used "to express solidarity – a bit like people who agree to host a Ukrainian refugee", Dennis-Kenji Kipker, a cybersecurity specialist at the University of Bremen, told FRANCE 24.

The sense of mission was fueled by a call, two days after Russia launched its invasion, by Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s vice prime minister and minister for digital transformation. In a February 26 post, Fedorov called for “digital talents” since Ukraine was “creating an IT army”.

Soon after the post was published on various platforms, the Anonymous collective "declared war" on Russian President Vladimir Putin. They were joined by several other groups, such as the Polish hacktivist movement Squad303 and the Belarusian Cyber Partisans, who say they are opponents of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.

This international group of hackers against Moscow then multiplied its operations. There was a succession of “denial of service” attacks (DDoS attacks are used to make a site inaccessible by overloading the servers with requests) against the sites of the Kremlin, the FSB (the intelligence service) and the state RT television station.

These activists have also managed to steal large amounts of information from the servers of major business groups such as Gazprom and the site of Roskomnadzor, the Russian media regulator. They also took control of several Russian news channels, such as Russia 24 and Channel One, for about ten minutes in order to broadcast images of Russian bombings.

Finally, Squad303 has developed a tool that allows anyone to send messages to Russian cell phone numbers in order to "alert them to the reality of the conflict", according to the hacking group named after the 303 squadron of Polish fighters during World War II. They claim that more than 20 million messages have been sent to Russians.

‘Beating the Russians’ in the information war

At a time when the fighting is claiming many victims in Ukraine, these efforts in cyberspace may seem anecdotal. A cyberattack on the Duma website to insert a pro-Ukrainian message on the homepage will never have the same effect as a bomb dropped on a residential area in Kyiv or Mariupol.

"Certainly these operations will not change the face of the conflict, but they will have an impact," said Kipker. "It’s still too early to assess the role of these activists in the conflict and above all, they are only one piece of the puzzle of all the efforts – including economic sanctions – put in place to counter Russia," said Vasileios Karagiannopoulos, a specialist in hacktivism at the University of Portsmouth, in an interview with FRANCE 24.

For instance, "data stolen by Anonymous could prove useful for the Ukrainian authorities", noted Karagiannopoulos.

There’s also "the symbolic impact of these cyberattacks", noted Karatzogianni. They show that the Russian cyber army, often portrayed as one of the most experienced in the world, is not unbeatable. "It’s also a message sent to the Ukrainians to show them that we are doing what we can to help them," she added.

Operations such as the hacking of Russian television channels "allow us to beat the Russians in the information war, which is supposed to be one of their strong points", explained Karatzogianni.

The success of Anonymous and other collectives have seen a rise in hacking operations, with Twitter teeming with messages warning of ever larger attacks. It’s a rise in cyber power that is not without risk.

The risks of playing Putin’s game

"What happens if one of Anonymous' attacks were to damage critical infrastructure in Russia, such as a hospital?" asked Kenji Kipker. "They have not received any training in cyber warfare, and there is always the risk of significant unexpected collateral damage," acknowledged Karatzogianni.

UK authorities have already warned amateur hackers not to join Ukraine’s “IT Army” amid fears that activists could be breaking the law or launch attacks that spiral out of control, reported the Guardian newspaper. "There’s always a risk of escalation if Vladimir Putin can use an Anonymous attack as a pretext and claim that it is proof of the West's involvement in the conflict," said Karagiannopoulos.

This is "the problem with collectives like Anonymous, because they do not speak for anyone and they don't have the right to 'declare wars' as they have done", said Kipker. In other words, since they don't represent anyone, the Kremlin will have no trouble portraying them as agents of the West. "Especially if these hacktivists do damage to infrastructure that matters to Russians on a daily basis [such as railroads, hospitals etc.], which could strengthen Russian public support for Vladimir Putin," he explained.

Instead of taking the risk of carrying out offensive actions that could go wrong, Anonymous and other hacktivists "could help find the best ways to secure Ukrainian computer networks against attacks by Russian hackers", suggested Kipker.

The war in Ukraine could be a pivotal moment for hacktivism. It may go down in history as the conflict that allowed this form of activism "to become known worldwide as an effective means of struggle", noted Karagiannopoulos. But it could also br the factor that led to a new escalation of Europe’s most serious conflict since the end of World War II.

This article has been translated from the original in French.