Belarusian Cyber Attack

A press release from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty:

(Prague, Czech Republic – April 28, 2008) -An attack of unprecedented scale and intensity is under way against the Internet sites of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Belarus Service and more than half a dozen other RFE/RL language broadcasting sites.

The cyber warfare started at 8 AM Prague time (2 AM EST), Saturday, April 26, and is ongoing. Known as “Denial of Service,” or DOS, it slows web traffic to a standstill by bombarding the system with bogus requests it has to consider and then deny. The brunt of the attack is aimed at RFE/RL’s Belarus Service and is intensifying.

RFE/RL President Jeff Gedmin compared the situation to the Cold War days when RFE/RL radio broadcasting to Communist countries was jammed. He said: “this is a different weapon to block a technologically advanced information platform, but little else has changed. Dictators are still trying to prevent the kind of unfiltered news and information that RFE/RL provides from reaching their people. They did not succeed in the last century and they will not succeed now.”

RFE/RL is taking countermeasures to restore service to affected RFE/RL Internet sites in Iran, Russia, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Kosovo in Serbia, Macedonia, Bosnia and Croatia, as well as Belarus.

RFE/RL Belarusian Service Director Alexander Lukashuk said he began getting personal e-mails from frustrated web visitors about two hours after the weekend attack began. He said “Saturday was a particularly important day in Minsk — the 22nd anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe in neighboring Ukraine. We have a large Internet audience that was relying on us to report live a rally of thousands of people, protesting the plight of uncompensated Chernobyl victims and a government decision to build a new nuclear power station.”

Lukashuk said a similar attack was launched against the Belarusian website on the 21st anniversary of Chernobyl in 2007 but it lasted only a few hours and did not affect other services. This weekend, other Belarusian websites were also hit, including the Minsk-based nongovernmental organization Charter 97. Lukashuk noted that many local websites in Belarus are coming to RFE/RL’s aid and have offered to carry material and reports of RFE/RL correspondents until the RFE/RL Belarus website is operational again.

On April 27, 2007, the government of Estonia decided to remove a monument to Soviet war dead from downtown Tallinn. In addition to rioting by ethnic Russians in Estonia, that event sparked perhaps the largest cyber attack in history against Estonia’s economic and governmental infrastructure. Of all the former Soviet republics, Belarus has retained the closest economic and political ties to Russia. Can it be mere coincidence that this attack is occurring on exactly the one-year anniversary of that event? Perhaps, but one has to wonder.

Could the Belarusian government have learned a few things from Russia’s cyberwarfare prowess, which many believe was demonstrated in the attacks on Estonia? Could Russia and the Belarusian government be using the occasion of the Chernobyl anniversary as cover for a larger attack against RFE/RL, which is perhaps the most consistent and largest instrument of press freedom in Russia’s sphere of influence?