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Cyber ‘spillover’ from Ukraine looms in the Baltics

The conflict between Russia and Ukraine puts neighboring EU countries at risk of disruption from cyberattacks and the spread of disinformation, officials warned Tuesday.

“The Baltic states, for Russia, are the easiest way to put pressure on the EU and NATO … This is the place where we have to pay careful attention,” said Bart Groothuis, Liberal member of the European Parliament and former cybersecurity official at the Dutch Ministry of Defense.

Groothuis is leading a delegation of members of the European Parliament’s subcommittee on defense and security on visits to Estonia on Tuesday and Lithuania on Wednesday, in what he said was a “show of solidarity” with Ukraine.

Those two Baltic countries are already involved in a cyber defense operation to support Ukraine through the EU’s Cyber Rapid Response Team, which was activated Tuesday.

The threat of cyberattacks on European soil is two-fold: First, attacks launched on Ukrainian networks could spread to European networks. Second, Russia could choose to launch direct attacks on European targets through its intelligence services or cybercriminal groups to disrupt the West’s response to the Ukraine crisis.

Cyberattacks on Ukraine have affected Europe in the past. In 2017, hackers spread malware known as NotPetya through a Ukrainian piece of software and triggered a worldwide cyber crisis seen as the most devastating cyberattack in history. Western security services later attributed the attack to Russia’s military intelligence agency GRU.

“There is always the threat of a spillover” like NotPetya, said Jaak Tarien, director at the Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence (CCDCOE), a NATO-accredited cyber defense center based in Tallinn that advises the defense alliance and its members on cybersecurity.

“It’s the one internet we’re using,” Tarien said, pointing to the connections Europe’s tech networks have with Ukraine.

Organizations with subsidiaries and suppliers in Ukraine are advised to review how cyberattacks in Ukraine could put broader networks at risk, said Groothuis.

European national cybersecurity agencies in recent weeks have repeatedly warned the private and public sectors to buckle up for cyberattacks at home.

That threat of major cyberattacks increased further on Tuesday as Europe responded with sanctions to Russia’s decision to recognize two breakaway Ukrainian regions as independent and deploy troops there.

Russian President Vladimir Putin “may decide to launch attacks against the West in the cyber realm … He sees it as kind of a low-hanging fruit to respond to the sanctions, for example, or respond to some Western behavior he doesn’t like,” said Tarien.

The European Union’s cybersecurity agency ENISA and its in-house cyber response team CERT-EU last week released a joint warning saying they had “reported a substantial increase of cybersecurity threats for both private and public organisations across the EU.” The U.S.’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency this month advised organizations to prepare for cyberattacks, and the U.K.’s National Cyber Security Center released a similar warning at the end of January, as did the Netherlands and others.

Baltic countries, in particular, in past years were often the target of campaigns by Russian state-backed hacking groups targeting public and private institutions. The EU attributed a campaign known as “Ghostwriter” at least in part to Russia, after it first plagued Baltic countries with phishing emails and disinformation campaigns and then moved on to target Polish and German politicians. Countries like Estonia and Lithuania have also emerged as vocal proponents of a tougher response to Russian cyber aggression in Europe.

Officials in the Baltics are now on high alert, expecting more attacks to come from Russia as the conflict in Ukraine escalates.

Last week, Lithuania’s Ministry of Defense raised the alarm, saying it expected serious cyberattacks on the country’s public authorities.

“We definitely see how, as the general state of security deteriorates, the likelihood of cyber activities increases. We’re working on a higher alert level,” said Margiris Abukevičius, vice minister at the Ministry of National Defense in Lithuania.

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