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An inside look at Ukraine's cyber war with Russia


Intelligence and technology have played key roles in the war in Ukraine. The head of the cyber department at the Security Service of Ukraine knows a thing or two about both. NPR cybersecurity correspondent Jenna McLaughlin sat down with him in Kyiv for a rare exclusive interview.

JENNA MCLAUGHLIN, BYLINE: It was a sunny summer day when my producer Katya and I were ushered into the heavily guarded headquarters of the Ukrainian Security Service. We passed armed guards, sandbags stacked against windows and finally climb a dimly lit staircase into the official press building.

Awesome. And I'm just going to record my phone as a backup in case...

Then we were allowed to turn on our microphones.


MCLAUGHLIN: Awesome. There we go.

This room we're sitting in has a lot of history.

VITIUK: This is a pretty old building. I don't remember when it was constructed, but previously it was the building used by KGB.

MCLAUGHLIN: The KGB, the infamous and brutal former Soviet spy service. Intelligence officers don't typically grant interviews, particularly during a war. But Illia Vitiuk, the head of the cyber department of the Ukrainian Security Service, or the SBU, seemed eager to share, at least in part to prove they're different from the former occupants of this building. Vitiuk is tall and musclebound with a cleanly shaved head and a serious demeanor. He immediately dives into the details of a recent Russian operation to hack into Ukrainian military communications systems.

VITIUK: So they planned these operations for a long period of time, and there were some hacker groups that they moved closer to the frontlines. And one of their missions was to capture devices and get the - first of all, the understanding what systems we are using and then to find ways to penetrate the systems.

MCLAUGHLIN: This is one of many examples of the cat-and-mouse game between Russia and Ukraine in cyberspace. These attacks might not all make the headlines, but they're constant. And Russia's always stealing information, even when Vitiuk's team catches them. Russian cyberattacks in Ukraine over the years reads like a list of Russia's greatest hits.

VITIUK: So first was BlackEnergy in 2015. This was the first destructive attack on our power grid.

MCLAUGHLIN: Next, a huge hacking campaign against Ukraine's train control systems, which ultimately failed but could have been devastating, followed by an infamous attack in 2017 called NotPetya, a Russian virus aimed at Ukraine that leaked out and cost companies around the world billions of dollars to recover from. Then in February of 2022 came the full-scale invasion.

VITIUK: So since the very beginning, they really thought that there would be a blitzkrieg. So they tried to use all the - how I say - aces in their sleeves during the first days.

MCLAUGHLIN: All the aces in their sleeves - experts around the world expected a Russian cyber tour de force, shutting the entire country down. Moscow did hack military communications, spread disinformation in every direction and launched destructive digital attacks against government agencies all over the country. The concern was so great that people at SBU were physically hauling servers away from downtown Kyiv to protect them, Vitiuk recalls.

VITIUK: There was a little bit risk of Kyiv to be surrounded, so we needed to take the most important databases and hardware and to relocate it from Kyiv.

MCLAUGHLIN: Ultimately, Ukraine held strong against the cyber barrage. There was damage, but Vitiuk says the impact was limited. He says that's thanks in part to years of suffering and learning from Russia's attacks and help from allies. That includes the U.S. Cyber Command. A team of experts visited Ukraine months before the invasion, helping to study Ukraine's defenses and providing hardware and software that Vitiuk says they're still using today.

VITIUK: Cyber Command, they came to us in December, couple of months before the invasion. Together with them, we inspected a couple of our objects of critical infrastructure that we thought will be in focus of their attacks. And it happened just like that.

MCLAUGHLIN: It's now been 18 months of fighting. The focus has rightfully been on dead and wounded, but there's still real concern about how sophisticated cyberattacks paired with things like missiles and drones can inflict real damage. That's especially true with the power grid, an increasing concern as Ukraine prepares for another harsh winter. While some Ukrainians are fighting on the frontlines, others are using their digital skills to volunteer. And that includes career cybercriminals.

VITIUK: So there was literally a line of people standing to security service of Ukraine, calling, text messaging, etc., and asking, how can we help? What should we do? There were a number of even convicted criminals, cybercriminals, that we, as security service, convicted that came. Now it's over, and we are focused on protecting our state. So tell us what to do and where to go.

MCLAUGHLIN: Some Ukrainian cyber experts remain critical of the government. They argue that corruption and past ties to Russian intelligence have prevented agencies like SBU from being fully prepared for this war. Vitiuk says he's aware of those allegations, but...

VITIUK: We don't need money.

MCLAUGHLIN: He says he wants international partners to donate technology and services, not money that could be misused.

VITIUK: We want this system to be as transparent as is possible. We want you to understand that we want to be protected, and we act as a shield to the whole democratic world. So we want our shield to be big and strong.

MCLAUGHLIN: In exchange, he says Ukraine has a lot to offer the world when it comes to exposing Russian tools and tricks.

VITIUK: New doctrines will be written and adopted according to what has happened here in Ukraine.

MCLAUGHLIN: Vitiuk firmly believes this is the moment his agency was made for, what he was born to do.

VITIUK: It was my dreams since childhood. You know, I liked "James Bond" films and stuff like that. And if you like to take responsibility and to take actions, I do believe that it's a very great profession.

MCLAUGHLIN: Never boring.

VITIUK: No, for sure. Never boring.

MCLAUGHLIN: When the war is over, Vitiuk says he looks forward to free and open skies.

VITIUK: I also have had interest in hobbies like skydiving and stuff. But because of these Russian bad people, now the sky is closed, and I cannot jump. So that's - also makes me more angry and adds to my devotion to finish this war as fast as possible.

MCLAUGHLIN: For the first time in almost two hours of talking about war, Vitiuk cracks a smile, looking forward to that next jump. Jenna McLaughlin, NPR News, Kyiv. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jenna McLaughlin is NPR's cybersecurity correspondent, focusing on the intersection of national security and technology.