How Ukraine intends to win the first cyber war

Slava Banik is one of the most important men in the Ukrainian Ministry of Digital Transformation. He wants life in Russia to be “really uncomfortable”. He explains to us how Ukrainian hackers work – and how the “civilian secret service” works.

Their attacks hit Russia far behind the front line, their attacks are aimed directly at the people in Putin’s empire: more than 300,000 volunteers fight with their computers in the IT Army of Ukraine. But they usually fight their battle off the main battlefields.

But the Ukraine war is not only fought in Bakhmut and around Cherson, but also in the digital space. “This is the first cyber war in the history of this planet,” says Slava Banik (32), chief developer at the Ukrainian Ministry for Digital Transformation. Hardly anyone knows the hacker scene in the war country better than he does.

In a cafeteria in Davos GR, he tells about his mission: “Life in Russia is supposed to be really uncomfortable. The Russian people should feel the war and not think that they will get away with it scot-free,” explains the young man in the blue hoodie.

“Life in Russia is supposed to be really uncomfortable. The Russian people should feel the war so that they don’t get away scot-free.”SLAVA BANIK

In 2019, the former digital marketing entrepreneur came to the newly created Ministry for Digital Transformation. Its goal: Abolish the bureaucracy in Ukraine and make all state obligations and services accessible with just a few clicks – from filing tax returns to marriages or founding a company.

Half the world is hacking along

But then the war came and turned everything upside down. “Hardly any other country has as many IT specialists as Ukraine,” says Banik. It wasn’t long before thousands of them formed Ukraine’s unofficial IT army. Today, the digital force counts hundreds of thousands of anonymous volunteers. From their cold rooms and rocket bunkers, they fight around the clock against Vladimir Putin (70) and his henchmen. There are, of course, similar groups on the Russian side. But their attacks have so far been less violent than Kyiv feared at the beginning of the war.

Distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks have proven to be particularly efficient for the Ukrainian IT army. Computer users flood a specific website with massive access requests until the system is overloaded and collapses. It is not only Ukrainians who are involved. The IT army’s English-language Telegram account, which is used by all those who do not speak Ukrainian, has almost as many followers as the original account.

They even cracked Putin’s website

On the one hand, the digital soldiers targeted Russian companies and institutions: for example, they paralyzed part of the Russian Regional Development Bank and prevented its customers from being able to pay with their bank cards. They even managed to briefly hack Putin’s official website three days after the outbreak of war. “Everything is under attack.” When Banik smiles, his silver braces flash in the harsh cafeteria light. And there is always a reason to smile for him.

Only recently, the hackers of the IT army managed to crash the Russian YouTube «Rutube». Again and again, they successfully attack news portals and television stations and spread pro-Ukrainian reports. “Far too many Russians support this war. So they should also feel it, »says Banik. The calculus behind it: If the people are seething with anger, Putin cannot hold his own. Then there are chances for peace.

How the “civilian secret service” works

But the hacker attacks are only one side of the digital warfare with which Ukraine – so far mostly outside the media stage – wants to make Russia give up. The other side: Possibly the first “civilian secret service” in human history, as Banik calls it. Anyone in Ukraine can use the “eBopor” (digital enemy) app to report suspicious sightings: if they see Russian positions somewhere, see a Putin fighter jet, or observe anything else strange.

“That’s the jackpot.” 450,000 reports have come in since the beginning of the war – anonymously and at lightning speed. “Each report is checked by a team of specialists and then forwarded directly to the army,” explains the chief hacker. “Such a tool could have decided many a war earlier.”

And what when the war is over? Will the IT army fighters stick to a possible peace agreement? “We’ll see about that,” says Banik. “First we have to win, otherwise all our pretty digital tools would be for nothing.”


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