Montenegro struggles with massive cyber attack, Russia accused


At the government headquarters in NATO member Montenegro, the computers are disconnected, the internet is turned off and the main websites of the state are down. The blackout comes amid a massive cyberattack on the tiny Balkan state, which officials say is the hallmark of pro-Russian hackers and its security forces.

The coordinated attack that began around August 20 crippled online government information platforms and endangered Montenegro’s vital infrastructure, including banking, water and electricity systems.

The attack, described by experts as unprecedented in its intensity and the longest in the small country’s recent history, capped a string of cyberattacks since Russia invaded Ukraine, with hackers targeting Montenegro and other European countries, most of them NATO members.

Defense Minister Rasko Konjevic, sitting at his desk in Montenegro’s capital, Podgorica, in front of a blackened PC screen, said government officials were advised by cyber experts, including a team of FBI investigators sent to the Balkan state, to go offline. go for safety reasons.

“We have been facing serious challenges related to the cyber attack for about 20 days, and the entire state system, the system of state administration and the system of service to citizens is functioning at a rather restrictive level,” Konjevic told The The Bharat Express News. .

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He said experts from different countries are trying to recover the computer system of the government of Montenegro and find evidence of who is behind the attack.

Montenegro officials said the attack that crippled the government’s digital infrastructure was likely carried out by a Russian-speaking ransomware gang that generally operates without Kremlin intervention, as long as it does not target Russian allies. The gang, dubbed Cuba ransomware, claimed responsibility for at least part of the cyberattack in Montenegro, creating a special virus for the attack called Zerodate.

Montenegro’s National Security Agency blamed Russia for the attack.

Russia has a strong motive for such an attack because Montenegro, which it once considered a strong ally, joined NATO in 2017 despite Kremlin opposition. It has also joined Western sanctions against Moscow for its invasion of Ukraine, prompting Moscow to label Montenegro as a “hostile state” along with several other countries that had joined the embargo.

“In such attacks, there are usually organizations that act as a mask for state intelligence,” Konjevic said, adding that the Defense Ministry’s NATO-related data is “protected in a special way” while the other possible leaks are “examined”. .

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The cyber-attack comes amid an apparent attempt by Moscow to destabilize the Balkan region at war in the 1990s through the Kremlin’s Balkan ally Serbia, thereby diverting the world’s attention at least partially from the war. in Ukraine.

Montenegro, which split from much larger Serbia in 2006, is currently run by an interim government that has lost parliamentary support because of Prime Minister Dritan Abazovic’s shadowy deals with the influential Serbian Orthodox Church without the consent of the entire coalition government supported. .

Montengro’s approximately 620,000 residents are deeply divided between those who want the country to restore its close ties to Serbia and Russia and those who want the country to continue on the road to European Union membership.

“A real war is being waged in Ukraine, with bombs, a war of conquest by Russia,” said political analyst Zlatko Vujovic. “Something similar is happening in Montenegro. There are no bombs, but there is tremendous tension, a huge hybrid conflict in which the interests of Russia and its and Serbian intelligence services are intertwined.”

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Other Eastern European states considered enemies of Russia have also faced cyber-attacks, mostly nuisance-level denial-of-service campaigns that render websites inaccessible by flooding them with unwanted data, but not damaging them. Targets included networks in Moldova, Slovenia, Bulgaria, North Macedonia and Albania.

Last week, Albania cut diplomatic ties with Iran and kicked its diplomats out after a July cyberattack that blamed the Islamic Republic.

“Montenegro continues to be a target within both the public and private sectors, as well as many other countries in that region,” said Patrick Flynn, head of the advanced program group at Trellix, a US-based cybersecurity firm. “We observed a mix of historically based national state actors and known ransomware groups.”

“This recent focus on NATO member states amplifies the need for hypervigilance within key corporate and government (and) critical infrastructure cybersecurity environments,” he said in an email to the TBEN.

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