The escalating tensions between Ukraine and Russia have captured global attention not only on physical battlegrounds, but also in the realm of cyberspace. The two most prominent hacktivist collectives unfurling chaos amidst this heart-wrenching conflict have committed to a de-escalation of their cyber-offensives and adherence to new rules of engagement recommended by an international watchdog.
This pledge of compliance comes in wake of guidelines issued by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on Wednesday—the first ever of its kind for civilian hackers. Despite initial criticisms of the so-called “Geneva Code of cyber-war” for its purportedly impractical nature, both Ukrainian and Russian hacktivists now affirm their intentions to respect it.
The Ukrainian invasion instigated a ceaseless tide of destructive cyber-attacks on public services in both nations, causing disruption of varying magnitudes. Though their methods can be deemed rudimentary, these hacktivist groups have achieved temporary disruption of government services, banking systems, businesses, pharmacies, and railway networks, prominently impacting citizens of both war-torn nations.
The hacktivists, often feeding off the furore on social media caused by their exploits, have sought to exacerbate tension in the public sphere to promote their respective causes. However, under the new ICRC guidelines, they have vowed to abstain from cyber-attacks that may adversely affect civilians.
Killnet, a notorious pro-Russian group, has expressed its readiness to abide by the Red Cross guidelines, viewing it as their first step towards peace. Its leader, known as Killmilk, commands a following of 90,000 on the group’s Telegram channel launched post-invasion. Despite controversial antics such as publicly disrespecting Ukraine and Nato flags, the group maintains its independence from Kremlin influence.
Given Killnet’s commitment to abide by the new cyber-war code, assaults on civilian targets including Ukraine’s allies are likely to diminish. Echoing the sentiment, The IT Army of Ukraine, another prominent hacktivist group with 160,000 Telegram subscribers, also pledges to respect the ICRC’s guidance. Their spokesperson conveyed the group’s intention to adhere to the guidelines despite the emerging challenges against their adversaries.
These affirmations signal a probable downturn in cyber-attacks as the groups limit their operational scope to official or military targets. However, not all hacktivist entities committed to various patriotic or ethical causes contemplate such a shift, suggesting a volatile and unpredictable future for this new battlefield.
The ICRC’s articulation of these eight rules of engagement is an attempt to regulate the virtual free-for-all that has pervaded and exacerbated the Ukraine crisis. They have issued cautionary advice about the rising enrolment in patriotic cyber gangs, inevitably presenting an alarming picture of the scale and potential repercussions of this cyber-conflict.