Donald Trump has called for Israeli sovereignty over the territory captured from Syria to be recognised. MEE takes a look at the strategic plateau

Syria slams US President Donald Trump, vows to recover Israeli-occupied Golan

President Donald Trump had said it was time to recognise Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights that Israel seized from Syria in 1967.PHOTO: REUTERS
President Donald Trump had said it was time to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights that Israel seized from Syria in 1967.PHOTO: REUTERS

Donald Trump has called for Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights territory captured from Syria to be recognized – AIWA! NO!

Damascus condemned on Friday U.S. President Donald Trump’s statement that it was time for the to recognition of Israeli sovereignty on Golan Heights, declaring Syria would recover the area using “all available means”. 

BEIRUT (REUTERS) –  United States President Donald Trump faced growing condemnation on Friday (March 22) over his statement that it was time to recognise Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

The Golan Heights [File photo]
The Golan Heights [File photo] –

Syria expressed outrage and said it was determined to recover the area “through all available means”.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said Trump’s statement had brought the region to the edge of a new crisis.  In a speech at a meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, Erdogan said: “We cannot allow the legitimisation of the occupation of the Golan Heights”. 

Syria’s state news agency quoted a foreign ministry source as saying Trump showed “the blind bias of the United States” towards Israel.


“The Golan is a territory occupied by Israel since 1967. France does not recognize the Israeli annexation of 1981,” the French Foreign Ministry said in a daily briefing, according to Reuters.

“The recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan, occupied territory, would be contrary to international law, in particular the obligation for states not to recognize an illegal situation.”

It did not change “the reality that the Golan was and will remain Syrian, Arab”, the source said.

Read: Russia military police deployed in demilitarised zone in Golan Heights

“The Syrian nation is more determined to liberate this precious piece of Syrian national land through all available means,” the source said, adding that Mr Trump’s statement was “irresponsible” and showed “contempt” for international law.

Russia’s foreign ministry said Mr Trump’s statement was a direct violation of United Nations decisions, RIA news agency said.

Mr Trump said on Thursday that it was time to recognise Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights that Israel seized from Syria in 1967, marking a dramatic shift in US policy and giving a boost to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the middle of his re-election campaign.

The disputed area was captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed in 1981 in a move not recognised internationally.

Related Story: Golan Heights, an Israel-Syria flashpoint

Related Story: Trump: US should ‘fully recognise’ Israeli sovereignty over Golan Heights

Mr Netanyahu has pressed the US to recognise its claim and raised that possibility in his first White House meeting with Mr Trump in February 2017.

Iran also condemned Mr Trump’s comments.

“This illegal and unacceptable recognition does not change the fact that it belongs to Syria,” Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi said on Friday, cited by state TV.

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Syria, Russia and Iran condemn US recognition of Israeli sovereignty over Golan Trump’s Twitter announcement, reversing over 50 years of policy, said to catch both American and Israeli officials off-guard

Syria, Russia and Iran condemn US recognition of Israeli sovereignty over Golan

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) welcomes US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to his residence in Jerusalem on March 21, 2019. (Jim Young/Pool/AFP)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) welcomes US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to his residence in Jerusalem on March 21, 2019. (Jim Young/Pool/AFP)

Syria, Russia and Iran condemn US recognition of Israeli sovereignty over Golan

(L to R) Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and US ambassador to Israel David Friedman, touch the stones of the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City on March 21, 2019, during the second day of Pompeo's visit as part of his five-day regional tour of the Middle East. [ABIR SULTAN/AFP/Getty Images]
(L to R) Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and US ambassador to Israel David Friedman, touch the stones of the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City on March 21, 2019, during the second day of Pompeo’s visit as part of his five-day regional tour of the Middle East. [ABIR SULTAN/AFP/Getty Images]

CRIMSON TAZVINZWA, AIWA! NO!|REUTERS|Trump’s Twitter announcement, reversing over 50 years of policy, said to catch both American and Israeli officials off-guard.

Syria and its allies Russia and Iran on Friday condemned US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which the Jewish state captured from its northern neighbor in the 1967 Six Day War.

Quoting an unnamed foreign ministry official, Syria’s official SANA news agency slammed the decision as “irresponsible” and a violation of United Nations resolutions concerning the territory’s status.

“Syria strongly condemns the irresponsible declaration of the American president, which again proves the US’s blind tendency in favor of the Zionist entity and its unreserved support for its aggression,” the official said. “The Syrian people remain committed to the liberation of the Golan Heights by all means at its disposal.”

The source added that Trump’s statement won’t change “the fact that the Golan was and will remain Arab and Syrian.”

The comments were Syria’s first reaction to Trump’s surprise Thursday announcement, which has been met with largely muted responses by the international community.

A mock road sign for Damascus, the capital of Syria, and a cutout of a soldier, are displayed at an old outpost in the Golan Heights near the border with Syria, May 10, 2018. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
A mock road sign for Damascus, the capital of Syria, and a cutout of a soldier, are displayed at an old outpost in the Golan Heights near the border with Syria, May 10, 2018. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Russia, which has long been a key backer of Syria and is fighting alongside forces loyal to President Bashar Assad in the Syrian civil war, condemned Trump’s declaration as a violation of UN decisions.

“Russia, as you know, takes a principled position on the issue of the Syrian Arab Republic’s ownership of the Golan Heights… Our assessment of the unlawful nature of Israel’s decision to extend its sovereignty to the Golan Heights remains unchanged, ” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova was quoted as saying by state-sponsored Sputnik News.

“Changing the status of the Golan Heights bypassing the Security Council is in direct violation of UN decisions,” Zakharova added.

Iran, another key ally of the Assad regime, said the move was illegal.

“This illegal and unacceptable recognition does not change the fact that it belongs to Syria,” foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi said, according to Reuters.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that the US announcement brought the region to the brink of a fresh crisis.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sings his election song before delivering a speech at an election rally in Istanbul’s Kasimpasa district, on March 5, 2019 (Ozan KOSE / AFP)
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sings his election song before delivering a speech at an election rally in Istanbul’s Kasimpasa district, on March 5, 2019 (Ozan KOSE / AFP)

“We cannot allow the legitimization of the occupation of the Golan Heights,” he said Friday morning in a speech at a meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, according to Reuters.

In signature fashion, Trump made the announcement on Twitter, reversing over 50 years of US policy since Israel’s capture of the strategic plateau from Syria.

Trump’s recognition caught officials in Israel and the United States off-guard, according to the McClatchy news agency.

“We all found out by tweet,” an Israeli official was quoted as saying. “We’ve been lobbying for this for a long time, but it was not the product of one phone call. There were hints, but we weren’t given advance notice.”

Another Israeli source told the news agency that Israeli leaders were informed of the decision shortly beforehand, as with Trump’s abrupt announcement in December that he would pull all US forces out of Syria.

According to the report, Trump’s Middle East peace negotiators and the State Department were also surprised by the move, with US officials having expected an announcement when Trump hosts Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House next week.

Netanyahu appeared overjoyed while praising the decision in a press conference in Jerusalem Thursday alongside US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who the New York Times noted “looked caught off-guard.”

While the timing of Trump’s decision was unexpected, there were a number of hints at a coming US policy shift, including the State Department’s defining of the Golan Heights as “Israeli-controlled” instead of “Israeli-occupied” for the first time, in a human rights report released last week.

Trump’s tweet was not preceded by a policy review, according to McClatchy, and it was not clear if the US president would follow up the announcement with a more official recognition such as an executive order.

It was also unclear if Israel would respond with a move of its own, as it never formally annexed the Golan Heights despite having extended Israeli law to the territory in 1981, in a move never recognized internationally.

US National Security Adviser John Bolton visits the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, January 6, 2019. (Ziv Sokolov/US Embassy Jerusalem)

Quoting unnamed White House officials, the news agency said Trump’s National Security Adviser John Bolton was a key force behind the move following his visit to Israel in January, seeing it as a signal the US remained committed to Israel in the wake of Trump’s announcement of the US troop pullout.

US Ambassador David Friedman also reportedly pushed for the recognition on the same grounds.

Israel in recent years has warned that its arch-enemy Iran is trying to establish a military presence in Syria that could threaten the Jewish state, and has carried out hundreds of strikes on targets there linked to Iran.

“It was an ask,” an Israeli official told McClatchy. “Because of the timing — it suddenly became a relevant issue about Iran.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


Netanyahu downplays imminent bribery charge: 'A house of cards about to collapse' History will judge Israel's attorney general for his decision on Netanyahu

Middle East: What will become of Trump’s ‘Palestine plan’ if Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is indicted?

Jared Kushner looking on during the Middle East summit in Warsaw, February 14, 2019.
Jared Kushner looking on during the Middle East summit in Warsaw, February 14, 2019.Kacper Pempel/ REUTERS

Israel will be holding general elections on April 9. The country’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who is backed into a corner due to corruption accusations, wants to win the elections by establishing an alliance with the most radical groups of Israel’s rightists. The alliance that Netanyahu, who is up against strong competitors, formed with the racist “Jewish Force” and “Jewish Home,” divided the Israeli lobby in the US – Abdullah Muradoğlu, YENISAFAK

IS TRUMP’S PLAN PROMOTING PEACE OR ALIENATING PALESTINIANS? – AIWA! NO!

As is known, U.S President Donald Trump had a peace plan, which he describes as the “deal of the century,” prepared to be a final solution to the “Palestine issue.” However, the details of this plan are yet to be announced to the public. The plan implemented by Trump’s son-in-law and chief adviser Jared Kushner, has, for months, turned into the case of the blind man describing the elephant. Trump had postponed the announcement of the plan till after the April 9 elections in Israel. Trump did not want the so-called peace plan to turn into a referendum at the elections. This is how Trump’s excuse to postpone the announcement has been explained.

The outline of Trump’s plan is drawn not by a team that is unbiased toward the parties involved, but by a small, strict group known to be pro-Israel. The Palestinian sides withdrew from the meetings due to Trump’s pro-Israel policies. Diplomatic ties between Palestine and the U.S. are broken. The Trump administration took pro-Israel decisions the previous U.S. governments could not dare to do. The U.S.’s Israel embassy was relocated from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; the financial contribution the U.S. made to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestinian refugees was cancelled; and the Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) Washington office was closed. The U.S. also withdrew from the UN’s UNESCO and Human Rights Council as it took decisions that disturbed Israel.

Benjamin Netanyahu (L), Donald Trump (C) and Mahmoud Abbas (R). (photo credit: REUTERS)
Benjamin Netanyahu (L), Donald Trump (C) and Mahmoud Abbas (R). (photo credit: REUTERS)

In addition to the sanctions on the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), the law package including a $38-billion military aid to Israel was also approved in the U.S. Senate. If the package passes the approval stages in Congress, it will be enacted. By withdrawing from the “Iran Nuclear Deal,” Trump fulfilled another demand of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Bringing out a law that identifies Israel as a “Jewish state,” Netanyahu reduced an Arab population of close to 2 million to second class citizens. Trump remained silent in the face of this fait accompli.

In exchange for the favors his did for Netanyahu, Trump is waiting for Israel to approve the peace plan he states is the “deal of the century.” However, Netanyahu has not given any positive signal with respect to the project. On the contrary, he made statements indicating that he will not approve of a Palestinian state whose capital is East Jerusalem, and that he will make no compromise on the settlement in the West Bank. Certain Zionist writers are warning that the plan is harmful in terms of Israel.

One of Netanyahu’s signs that he will interrupt Trump’s peace plan was his election alliance with three minor parties that are known for being Jewish racists. Netanyahu’s cooperation with these parties that are affiliated with the “Meir Kahane” movement, which is on the U.S.’s terrorist organizations list, is bad news for Trump’s peace plan. These parties, which do not intend to give even a pebble to Palestinians from Palestine’s territory, entering the Israeli parliament, or taking place in the Israeli government, is one of the most serious obstacles standing before Trump’s plan.

The main organizations of the Israeli lobby in the U.S. also made statements criticizing Netanyahu’s alliance move. According to some commentators, this alliance is equivalent to the U.S. president striking a deal with the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). In the case that Netanyahu wins the elections, there is no likelihood that a coalition government with these parties will take a positive approach to Trump’s peace plan. This alliance move has shown what Netanyahu, who got Trump to do everything he wanted until now, cannot make Trump do too.

If Netanyahu loses in the April 9 elections, will the new government take a positive approach to Trump’s Palestine plan? Whether is a government with Netanyahu, or another government, can Trump apply serious pressure for Israel to accept the U.S.’s plan? Or will the “deal of the century” end in a fiasco? It is too soon to see what Trump has up his sleeve, but we can say that a great uproar will break out in Israel after April 9.

Netanyahu downplays imminent bribery charge: 'A house of cards about to collapse' History will judge Israel's attorney general for his decision on Netanyahu

Trump Ahead of Netanyahu Indictment Decision: ‘He’s Done a Great Job as PM’

Trump at a news conference after his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, in Hanoi, February 28, 2019.\ JORGE SILVA/ REUTERS
Trump at a news conference after his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, in Hanoi, February 28, 2019.\ JORGE SILVA/ REUTERS

Speaking at a summit with North Korea’s Kim, U.S. President Trump says ‘we have a great shot at peace’ between Israel and the Palestinians – HAARETZ

President Doland Trump said on Thursday, ahead of a decision by Israel’s attorney general on whether to indict Benjamin Netanyahu of corruption, that the latter “has done a great job as prime minister.”

Speaking at a press conference in Vietnam following a second summit with North Korea leader Kim Jong Un, Trump was asked about the upcoming indictment decision. “He’s tough, smart, strong,” the president said on Netanyahu.

Israel’s Political Map Has Shifted Rightward – and That’s Bad News for Netanyahu

The U.S. president then spoke of his plan for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, a plan said to be unveiled following Israel’s April 9 general election.

“All my life I heard that the toughest of all deals – and everyone loves deals – would be peace between Israel and the Palestinians,” Trump said. “They say it’s the impossible deal, I’d love to be able to produce it.”

Speaking about the plan, Trump mentioned the military aid Israel is receiving from the United States and the U.S. aid cut to the Palestinians. “We were paying the Palestinians a lot of money and we ended that a couple of years ago because they weren’t saying the right things. And they’ve been much better. We have a great shot at peace.”

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit is expected to announce Thursday his decision on whether to charge Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, subject to a hearing, in the three criminal investigations pending against him.

In Case 4000, in which Netanyahu is suspected of providing regulatory concessions to Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder of Bezeq telecommunications, in exchange for favorable coverage from Bezeq’s news website, Walla, Mendelblit is expected to announce an indictment for bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

In Case 1000, in which the prime minister is alleged to have accepted gifts from wealthy business figures in violation of the law, the PM is expected to be charged with fraud and breach of trust.

Charges are also expected to be filed in Case 2000, which centers on negotiations between the prime minister and Arnon Mozes, the publisher of the Yedioth Ahronoth daily, allegedly involving limiting the circulation of the rival Yisrael Hayom daily in exchange for favorable coverage for the prime minister. It is not yet clear what charges Mendelblit will file against the prime minister for that case. Mendelblit is also expected to announce plans to charge Mozes in that case.


The goal, say experts, is to test the West’s defenses. The U.S. and other intelligence agencies have responded by moving into the Ukrainian networks to pick up the signals. “Getting intelligence ahead of time is important,” says Dymtro Shymkiv, the former head of Microsoft in Ukraine and President Petro Poroshenko’s chief adviser on cyber between 2014 and 2018. “Some of the viruses and malware in the energy blackouts in Ukraine were later found in the U.S. and Israel.”

Ukraine: How the Eastern European country became a test bed for Russia cyberweaponry

Illustration by John W. Tomac for POLITICO
Illustration by John W. Tomac for POLITICO

As Russian hackers face down Western spies, the Ukraine has become a live-fire space for hackers LAURENS CERULUS

KIEV|AIWA! NO!| — To see the warfare of the future, head to the top floor of a nondescript office tower on a potholed street on the scruffy outskirts of Ukraine’s capital. There, next to a darkened conference room, engineers sit at dark gray monitors, waging war with lines of code.

“Attacks are happening every day,” says Oleh Derevianko, founder of the Ukrainian cybersecurity firm that employs them, Information Systems Security Partners. “We never thought we were going to be the front line of cyber and hybrid war.”

There may be no better place to witness cyber conflict in action than Ukraine today. Open warfare with Russia, a highly skilled, computer-literate pool of talent and a uniquely vulnerable political, economic and IT environment have made the country the perfect sandbox for those looking to test new cyberweapons, tactics and tools.

“Ukraine is live-fire space,” says Kenneth Geers, a veteran cybersecurity expert and senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who advises NATO’s Tallinn cyber center and spent time on the ground in Ukraine to study the country’s cyber conflict. Much like global powers fought proxy wars in the Middle East or Africa during the Cold War, Ukraine has become a battleground in a cyberwar arms race for global influence.

Derevianko’s outfit works closely with the Ukrainian government and its U.S. and European allies to fend off onslaughts against the country’s networks. On the other side of the virtual front line: Not just sophisticated Russian-affiliated hacker groups like Fancy Bear, Cozy Bear and Sandworm — the group behind “NotPetya,” the most devastating cyberattack to date — but also hosts of other governmental, nongovernmental and criminal players testing out their capabilities on the country’s networks.

“They’re not only testing destruction but also testing your reflexes” — Oleh Derevianko, founder of Information Systems Security Partners

Activity has spiked ahead of presidential elections in March, says Derevianko. Since November, hacker groups have been shelling Ukrainian magistrates, government officials, attorneys and others with emails that contain attachments with malware and viruses — sometimes disguised as Christmas greetings, or as messages from the prime minister’s office — in what Derevianko describes as “mass phishing.”

Russian hacker groups are repeatedly attempting to get into the country’s systems, Ukraine’s national security service told POLITICO. Critical infrastructure and election systems are under constant stress, it said.

“They’re not only testing destruction but also testing your reflexes,” says Derevianko.

Russia’s playground

The war in eastern Ukraine has given Russian-affiliated hackers the opportunity to perfect their ability to launch cyberattacks with a series of major intrusions in Ukraine over the past few years.

“The annexation of Crimea and war in Donbas, it has created a volatile political environment,” says Merle Maigre, the former head of NATO’s cyberdefense center in Tallinn who is now executive vice president at the Estonian cybersecurity firm CybExer.

Even as Russian tanks crossed the physical border into eastern Ukraine in the spring of 2014, Russian-affiliated hackers were sending malicious code onto Ukraine’s IT systems, providing political chaos as a smokescreen.

Three days before the presidential election in May 2014, hackers broke into Ukraine’s Central Election Commission and disabled parts of the network using advanced cyberespionage malware, according to a report by the International Foundation of Electoral Systems funded by the U.S. and U.K. and seen by POLITICO. The Central Election Commission was hit again later that year, when hackers took down its website ahead of a parliamentary vote in October.

Large-scale attacks followed the next year, and again in 2016. The targets, this time, were companies running Ukraine’s power grid. In 2015, hackers used so-called BlackEnergy malware, dropped on companies’ networks using spear phishing attacks that tricked employees into downloading from mock emails. So-called KillDisk malware later destroyed parts of the grid.

The resulting blackouts — the world’s first known successful cyberattack on an energy company at scale — affected about 230,000 Ukrainians for up to six hours. A year later, in December 2016, hackers relied on even more sophisticated tools to successfully turn off the lights in large parts of the Ukrainian capital yet again.

But the widest-reaching attack — and the world’s most financially damaging to date — took place in 2017, when hackers combined code tested in the power grid attacks with malware known as “Petya” and a security vulnerability initially discovered by the U.S. National Security Agency called EternalBlue.

Danish shipping behemoth Maersk was crippled by a 2017 malware attack | Leon Neal/Getty Images
Danish shipping behemoth Maersk was crippled by a 2017 malware attack | Leon Neal/Getty Images

The resulting malware — “NotPetya” — compromised the software of a small tech firm called Linkos Group, providing it access to the computers of utility companies, banks, airports and government agencies in Ukraine. It also crippled multinationals like the Danish shipping giant Maersk, logistics giant FedEx, pharma company Merck and other major corporations.

The NotPetya attack — which cost an estimated $10 billion to clean up — was “as close to cyberwar” as we’ve come, says Geers. “This was the most damaging attack in history, of a scale and cost that would far exceed a missile fired from the Donbas into Kiev.”

Cyber sandbox

The free-for-all environment of a country at war has turned Ukraine into a magnet for players of all types looking to test their cyber capabilities. In addition to hostile Russian hackers, the country has attracted cybersecurity firms looking to get close to the action, Western intelligence agencies seeking to understand the nature of modern conflict and criminals looking to make a buck.

“Donbas is basically lit up with malware. That’s intelligence services trying to figure out what Russia is going to do next in Donbas, trying to figure out what [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is up to,” says Geers, the Atlantic Council’s cybersecurity expert. “The U.S., China, Russia, Israel, Turkey, Iran — it’s coming from everywhere.”

In addition to the ongoing military conflict, Ukraine offers a tempting target because so many of the country’s computers run pirated software, which doesn’t receive standard security patches. And, because it is well integrated with Western European internet networks, the country offers a backdoor to hack the rest of Europe.

Russian President Vladimir Putin | Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP via Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin | Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP via Getty Images

Constant attempted attacks by hacker groups such as Fancy Bear, Cozy Bear and Turla are putting critical infrastructure and election systems under constant stress, Ukraine’s national security told POLITICO.

The goal, say experts, is to test the West’s defenses. The U.S. and other intelligence agencies have responded by moving into the Ukrainian networks to pick up the signals.

“Getting intelligence ahead of time is important,” says Dymtro Shymkiv, the former head of Microsoft in Ukraine and President Petro Poroshenko’s chief adviser on cyber between 2014 and 2018. “Some of the viruses and malware in the energy blackouts in Ukraine were later found in the U.S. and Israel.”

Ukrainian authorities, he says, exchange cyber intel for help in fending off the hackers.

“Whenever we identified malware, we uploaded it to special services where manufacturers of anti-virus could analyze it,” says Shymkiv. His cyber team sometimes worked with expert communities on platforms like Hybrid Analysis or ANY.RUN, a technique known as “cloud-based sandboxing,” where researchers can access the data and get in touch with those affected by malware, he says.

“U.S. counterparts, they are requesting a lot of information and interacting very productively” — Roman Boyarchuk, head of Ukraine’s State Cyber Protection Center

Washington has invested heavily in cyber resilience in Ukraine since 2014. USAID alone freed up a pot of $10 million (€8.9 million) for cybersecurity defenses, and a sizeable part of its much larger budget to support Ukraine goes to securing IT systems in the country.

U.S. companies, such as tech giant Microsoft, have also beefed up their presence in the country. Hardware leader Cisco has a strong foothold that includes its renowned cyberintelligence unit Talos. And U.S. cyber firm CrowdStrike, known for bullishly calling out state-sponsored hacks, is also active in the country, as are many others.

The U.S. and Europe are also investing in seminars and training for Ukrainian cybersecurity staff, and are involved in day-to-day assistance via the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), an international organization backed by democracies worldwide to help out with holding elections, and other channels.

“U.S. counterparts, they are requesting a lot of information and interacting very productively,” says Roman Boyarchuk, the head of Ukraine’s State Cyber Protection Center, the authority tasked with fending off attackers from government networks. American and European cybersecurity authorities regularly ask for more details about his agency’s analysis of major threats, he says.

Hackers are ramping up their activity ahead of Ukraine's March election | Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images
Hackers are ramping up their activity ahead of Ukraine’s March election | Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images

Activity has increased ahead of Ukraine’s national election in March, experts say, as smaller groups and individual hackers and criminals look for financial gain.

“They’re scanning the networks and sending a lot of malware in order to find the breaches, the vulnerabilities,” says Boyarchuck, of the national cyber emergency team. “They are taking control, recording this control, putting it into databases and selling it.”

The hackers then find buyers for these credentials or access into confidential networks. Large data sets are sold on dark web marketplaces to anyone willing to pay the price.

“Everyone is buying it,” says Boyarchuk. “Corporate competitors, state actors, anybody.”

Fears of contagion

For Kiev’s cyber helpers, the goal is not just to help out a developing country under pressure. As Ukraine becomes ever more integrated with the West, there’s a strong fear of contagion. A successful cyberattack in Kiev, they fear, can easily slip the country’s borders and infect computers across the globe.

That’s become especially true following Ukraine’s shift toward the West, which triggered Russia’s aggression. The country’s 2014 Association Agreement with the EU came with a “deep and comprehensive free-trade agreement” in place since 2016 that has strengthened economic ties. And with the increase in trade has come added data flows and interactions in its internet networks.

The 2017 “NotPetya” attack was a painful example of the risks that come with this kind of entanglement: An attack starting in a small tech firm in Ukraine spread to companies and government agencies across the world, grinding the business of international heavy-hitters to a halt.

“We provided them with political support, we’ve supported Ukraine in providing guns and ammo. Now we’re moving to cyber” — Edvinas Kerza, Lithuania’s vice minister of national defense

NotPetya “was when everybody realized how vulnerable we are when Ukraine gets hit,” says Maigre, the former head of NATO’s cyberdefense center. “It easily blows over to Europe and beyond.”

For the EU, in particular, the attack underlined the urgency of beefing up Ukraine’s cyberdefenses.

Since then, European countries have set up bilateral assistance deals. Estonia, for example, is heavily involved in helping Ukrainian authorities set up a secure electoral IT system. Lithuania is also active, according to Edvinas Kerza, the country’s vice minister of national defense.

“We provided them with political support, we’ve supported Ukraine in providing guns and ammo,” says Kerza. “Now we’re moving to cyber.”

The EU’s eye is now on securing the upcoming presidential election at the end of March.

March's vote in Ukraine could provide valuable insight on cyberweaponry for the EU | John MacDougall/AFP via Getty Images
March’s vote in Ukraine could provide valuable insight on cyberweaponry for the EU | John MacDougall/AFP via Getty Images

“We strongly expect Russia will try to influence the course of Ukraine’s presidential and parliamentary elections in 2019,” Ukraine’s security service said in an email, adding that the greatest threat comes from special services launching “purposeful, long-term cyberattacks with state interests in mind.”

Above all, the March vote could provide valuable insight for the EU, as it braces for cyberattacks on its European election at the end of May. That vote — in which voters in 27 countries will choose a new European Parliament and by extension decide who sits at the helm of the EU’s top institutions — is uniquely vulnerable to interference.

What happens in Kiev today could easily happen in Berlin, Rome or Amsterdam tomorrow, experts say. Ukraine “is sort of like a litmus test,” says Maigre. The stream of phishing emails, the data sold on the dark web, the new types of malware — all of it can pop up west of Ukraine at any time. “That’s why it is interesting to see how it all plays out in the elections,” she says.

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