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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A laptop screen displays a warning message in Ukrainian, Russian and Polish, that appeared on the official website of the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry after a massive cyberattack, in this illustration taken January 14, 2022. REUTERS/Valentyn

Christopher Bing, Joseph Menn

(Reuters) – Hackers who defaced and interrupted access to numerous Ukrainian government websites on Friday could be setting the stage for more serious cyberattacks that would disrupt the lives of ordinary Ukrainians, experts said.

John Hultquist (an intelligence analyst with U.S. cybersecurity company Mandiant), said, “As tensions increase, we can expect more aggressive Cyber Activity in Ukraine, and possibly elsewhere,” including possible “destructive Attacks that target critical infrastructure.”

Hultquist stated, “Organizations should begin preparation.”

Intrusions by hackers into hospitals, power companies and financial systems were rare until very recently. Organized cybercriminals, most of which are Russian, have been aggressively targeting institutions in recent years using ransomware to freeze data, and other computerized equipment necessary for the care of hospital patients.

Some cases have seen extortion attack results in the death of patients, according to medical professionals and media reports.

Friday’s attack on Ukrainian websites included a warning to “be afraid and expect the worst”, at a time when Russia has amassed about 100,000 troops near Ukraine, raising fears in the West that it is considering an invasion. Moscow says it does not want to invade.

Russia consistently rejected the hacking claims made against it by Ukraine and other countries throughout the years. Russia was not directly charged by Ukraine, although it is suspected in the latest web defacements.

Russian troops invaded Crimea’s Black Sea peninsula and annexed the territory from Ukraine in 2014. Dmitri alperovitch, former CrowdStrike (NASDAQ) cybersecurity executive, said that Russia could invade once again to increase cyberattacks.

Alperovitch indicated that these would likely prove to be disruptive but not fatal. They will not be the main show. “The main event will take place on the ground.”

Some of the most severe hacks to infrastructure have already hit Ukraine.

Cyberattacks of unprecedented proportions in December 2015 caused the power to be cut to western Ukraine’s 225,000 residents. Hackers also attempted to obstruct power distribution equipment and complicate efforts to restore power.

Ukraine’s winter temperatures are below freezing. Heat loss can prove fatal. Outages in the 2015 attack reportedly lasted six hours in some towns.

According to officials, hackers have targeted the Ukrainian state institutions 6500 times over the past two months. Russian security services waged a cyberwar against Ukraine through cyberattacks, according to government.

A State Treasury attack caused the system to be halted for several days. This meant that state employees and pensioners were unable receive their payments or salaries on time.

The attacks against Ukraine’s power grid are considered by experts as the first examples of hackers shutting off critical energy systems supplying heat and light to millions of homes.