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

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.

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