Ukraine‘s energy ministry is investigating a digital assault on the country’s power grid, one that authorities in the volatile Eastern European nation have blamed on Russia.
The energy company Prykarpattyaoblenergo said on Dec. 23 that a disruption knocked out power to several sections of the country’s western region. The Ukrainian government has established a commission to investigate the outages, but it is already pointing the finger at its aggressive neighbor.
“It was an attempt to interfere in the system, but it was discovered and prevented,” a spokeswoman for Ukraine’s security bureau SBU told Reuters. The agency issued a statement on Monday blaming “Russian security services” but did not provide evidence to back up its attribution.
Since pro-Russian separatists backed by the Kremlin seized the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in early 2014, the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin has reportedly worked behind the scenes to further destabilize the country.
Russia’s cyber army is reportedly one of the most powerful in the world, along with those of the United States, China, and Iran. Russian hackers have been blamed for massive cyberattacks on Estonia and Georgia, two former Soviet Republics that have increasingly leaned toward the West.
Michael Assante, an expert in industrial-control systems like those that run national energy grids, urged outside observers not to rush to judgement in the Ukrainian case.
“Attribution can be difficult and false flag attacks would not be out of the realm of possibility,” Assante wrote. “There are motives that can be explored on both the Russian and Ukrainian side.”
Robert M. Lee, founder of the security firm Dragos Security, tweeted that while the source of the outage remained unknown, “the geopolitical aspect makes it something to watch.”
Few cyberattacks have successfully disrupted large-scale electrical systems, but in the United States, concern over the vulnerability of critical infrastructure like banks and power plants has raised the profile of cybersecurity on the national stage. U.S. officials and independent security researchers warn that the next major war will feature a large digital component, given cyber’s remote and asymmetric nature.
One of the only known successful cyberattacks on national infrastructure, a computer virus called Stuxnet that severely disrupted thousands of Iranian nuclear centrifuges, has been attributed to the United States and Israel.