Intel Firm Links Ukraine Energy Debt With Potential Cyber Assault

Russian President Vladimir Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin Mikhail Klimentyev, Presidential Press Service/AP

Recorded Future drilled into a wide range of Web data to create a speculative timeline of potential network attacks.

A Web intelligence company says Putin-sponsored cyber assaults against Ukraine could coincide with deadlines for paying Russia for energy.

Recorded Future, partly funded by CIA venture capital firm In-Q-Tel, drew data from social media, blogs, news and trade reports, such as analysis from Oil&Gas Eurasia, as well as other sources to create a speculative timeline of potential future clashes. The firm’s software system processed data on 55 references to future events that are related to Ukraine’s debt to Russian-controlled gas exporter Gazprom.

For example, regime officials reportedly have said that Ukraine must reimburse Gazprom about $3.5 billion for fuel it has already used, plus advance payments -- or Gazprom will cut off gas for domestic use in June.

In June, analysts say it's possible Russia could exert pressure on Ukraine by using cyber power, perhaps by disrupting online services or penetrating Ukraine's communications systems. "We generally make a point that cyber capabilities are just one tool in the geopolitical toolkit," Scott Donnelly, an open source researcher with the CIA-backed startup, said on Friday.

"Cyberattacks don't occur in a vacuum, and they occur in support of specific objectives," he added. 

Some cybersecurity specialists believe Russia has more destructive cyber capabilities than it has so far unleashed. 

An earlier presentation by Recorded Future showed that heavy use of distributed denial of service attacks, which freeze sites using bogus traffic, coinciding with other upcoming events may signal conflict escalation. On May 11, for instance, the Eastern cities of Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kharkiv face possible referendums. And May 25 is the Ukrainian presidential election. 

The company’s speculative timeline is below (click on the image for an enlarged version):