War in Europe
International 16/03/2022

Heli Tiirmaa-Klaar: "Putin wants to cut off internet access and create his own internet, like China has"

4 min
Heli Tiirmaa-Klaar.

BarcelonaHeli Tirmaa-Klaar has had a political career in cybersecurity for many years, but when talking about Ukraine she says she does so as an "Estonian citizen" who grew up in the USSR. But she is also the director of the Digital Society Institute and was an ambassador in cyberdiplomacy for the Estonian government. She has visited Barcelona to participate in the 20th international seminar on War and Peace in the 21st Century, organised by CIDOB.

How prepared is Ukraine for a cyberattack?

— Ukraine is very well trained to face cyber-attacks, because it has been at war for eight years and has already suffered many of them. But since the beginning of the invasion, Russia has not launched any cyber-attacks using all its destructive capabilities for several reasons. The first is that cyber methods have been used to sow chaos and confusion before acting militarily; the second is that cyberattacks are not necessary when they can just bomb the power grid. A cyberattack is useful when you can't use conventional weapons or military activities or if you want to hide the identity of the attacker. The third reason is that Russian troops are very poorly equipped communicatively, and they also need [Ukrainian] communication networks to be operational.

Russia has been testing its cyberattack tactics in Ukraine in recent years.

— Yes. In these eight years Ukraine has suffered cyberattacks against banks, transport.... In 2016 many Ukrainians suffered a week-long power cut. And this was done by the Russian state, these were not unknown criminals. Ukrainians have trained a lot and are prepared, and they have also received help from NATO countries

And also from the private sector, like the help that Elon Musk has offered Zelensky.

— Yes, because they did suffer a cyberattack: ViaSat satellites were hacked, and Elon Musk made his Starlink satellites available to Ukraine. The next day, Starlink satellites were also hacked, but they countered it within hours. Musk can afford to have one of the best cyberdefence teams in the world. There was also a cyberattack attempt on February 23, on the day before the invasion: an attempt was made to hack into Ukraine's rail services, but Microsoft detected it and fixed it in only three hours. These are examples of how the private sector can do things.

And is a cyber attack against military infrastructure or technology possible?

— It is much more difficult to do, because military infrastructure is hidden, you need an insider or confidential information. Also, Ukraine's military weaponry is robust, it's not very high-tech; instead, it has manual launchers. They do have drones, and this is public, but the drones are very well protected.

Do you think a large-scale cyberattack is possible during the invasion?

— It is a threat, no doubt about it. At any moment the Russian state can launch a cyberattack, or it can release cybercriminals it has in its territory who have hacked into Western targets before, in order to attack Western banks or key infrastructures in European countries, as Russia may want to retaliate for European sanctions and attack banks or other key services. A cyberattack could leave us without electricity or a water supply for a few hours or days until it is fixed.

Is Europe prepared?

— Some countries are very well prepared, but others are not. Estonia is very well prepared, as are the Nordic countries, such as Finland and Sweden, but also Germany and the Netherlands. Nevertheless, even if states and governments are well prepared, it may happen that private companies within these countries, such as banks, are not.

And then there is the propaganda and disinformation war.

— Yes. In the West we differentiate between technological cyberwarfare and disinformation, but Russia makes no distinction. However, on the disinformation side, this time the Russians have lost, because Ukraine has done really well and it has managed to get its message to dominate Western media. Moreover, in this new war in which any citizen has a cell phone, there are videos and photos of every event on social networks, a lot of objective information on the ground, such as photos of tanks on TikTok. Moreover, Zelensky has used the media in a very smart way. Today only China is listening to Russia's discourse and that it is because of the Chinese censorship.

But Russia is still using disinformation tools to sell its propaganda.

— Yes, they are still very active to give their own people a very wrong picture of what is going on. The picture that the Russian media has been painting for 20 years now, since Putin got to power, goes far beyond what is imaginable. Russian talk shows are full of stories that never happened. I grew up in the USSR and it was not so bad then; it was bad, but not as bad as it is now, the way they treat their people: they are no longer lies, they are outright fantasies. But the West has paid no attention; it has taken a war for Russia Today to stop being translated, it only happened when the EU imposed sanctions. And now all the Western media has left Russia, so Western versions of events will no longer be known. And Putin is even considering cutting off internet access and creating an internet of his own like China has. This is basically taking Russia back to 1952, to the Stalin era.

And the Russian people buy his message?

— Unfortunately yes. Most Russians have bought it. I think the West has underestimated the extent to which Russians believe his message. Only a small part of the population, of the elite, in fact, does not believe it, and they have already fled the country. Whoever has money and a place to go has already fled. This US reasoning that the people of Russia will overthrow Putin is unreal: there will be no revolution. Russian society has never revolted against a dictator, it has always been someone from the dictator's entourage who has kicked him out.

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