Hacks, propaganda and censorship are all being deployed—and Russia has a huge advantage.
Ground troops may be flexing their muscles in Crimea while they await marching orders, but cyber and information attacks between Russia and Ukraine are already underway.
Friday, a group of unidentified men took control of a series of communication centers in Crimea. Maintained by Ukrtelecom JSC, Ukraine's telecom provider, the facilities are essential to linking Crimea with the rest of Ukraine. With the hubs knocked out, landline, mobile, and internet services were severed, with almost no coverage available. It is unclear exactly who was responsible for these attacks, but considering their sophisticated and clandestine nature, it is reasonable to assume they were carried out by professionals.
On the other side of the border, RT—the news channel formerly known as Russia Today and funded by the state—had its website hacked on Sunday morning, with the word 'Nazi' not so stealthily slipped into headlines. Highlights included “Russian senators vote to use stabilizing Nazi forces on Ukrainian territory,” and “Putin: Nazi citizens, troops threatened in Ukraine, need armed forces' protection.” RT was quick to notice the hack, and the wordplay only lasted about 20 minutes.
But that pales in comparison to Russia's information war tactics, which have been described as "an all-out propaganda campaign" by AFP.
State-run outlets have propagated reports of international involvement in the long-running Kiev protests. TV channel Russia 24 broadcast the message of a Russian claiming he was paid by nefarious western forces to grab a sniper rifle and join the opposition forces. “There are mercenaries there […] they come from very different countries; the United States and Germany, they come wearing identical military uniforms,” he said. The news anchor then added that “mercenaries are now going to Crimea. Their aims are clear enough: to provoke a new wave of the crisis and rob people on the sly.”
Again, AFP's judgment was that “the unspecific but threatening reports seemed principally aimed at stirring fears.”
And it's not just disinformation being spread, but information being cut off all together in some instances. Social media sites such as Russia's VK have been blocking access to pro-Ukranian groups associated with Maidan [Russian article], making them unavailable for those with a Russian IP address. Although this can easily be circumvented with the use of a Virtual Private Network or the Tor network, the blanket censorship will apply to most users within Russia.
These actions may not be directly related to the threat of physical violence on the ground in Crimea, but they're evidence that the battle for hearts and minds is already well underway through the medium of technology and information—and that Russia has a massive advantage.