Interview with TRT World: CIA urges Russian dissidents to share information on dark web

1. The CIA wants Russians who oppose their government’s actions in Ukraine to share information, using the dark web. Can you see something like that happening?

Definitely, the dark web has long been an arena for cyber operations, and it is well known that the intelligence services of various countries are actively involved there in order to obtain information and establish contacts, which would otherwise be much more difficult. In this respect, it is hardly surprising that the U.S. CIA is currently also involved, since any information from insider circles can be decisive for the further course of the war. The CIA’s offer, which was recently announced in social media, is not only directed at Russian defectors, but also at normal Russian citizens who want to do something against the unjustified war of aggression. The CIA now wants to provide a safe way for this. The background to this is, of course, that Russian citizens and opposition figures are less able than ever to speak out publicly in these times. Nevertheless, the CIA knows that insider information from the ground in Russia is an important source for assessing the situation. And it is also known from relevant circles that there are numerous Russians who try to contact the CIA from Russia in order to provide information relevant to the war. This procedure makes it more than clear that every war fought by conventional means is at the same time also an information war. And it will also be a question of whether the Russian government’s disinformation and propaganda policy can be countered with insider information that is deliberately launched into the public domain by the CIA.

2. Has the fighting on the battleground extended to the cyber world, in the dark web, which is dominated by Russian speakers. Is there a divide in that domain?

The war between Russia and Ukraine is undoubtedly also taking place on the web, one can speak of a real information war, which of course also takes place on the Dark Web. The Dark Web is not dominated by anyone as much as the Russian-speaking world. On the one hand, of course, we are talking about the sufficiently well-known cases of illegal trafficking in pornography, weapons, drugs, and cybersecurity breaches and data dumps of confidential information. Also, many dark net forums have a code that prohibits certain actions, such as actions that can harm the Russian Federation. We have seen significant solidarity from Russian dark net groups with the actions of the Russian government since the start of the war. This has ranged from mere expressions of solidarity to support for cyberattacks to attack critical infrastructure of states supporting Ukraine. This has led to corresponding counter-movements sympathetic to Ukraine and Western states conducting retaliatory attacks against pro-Russian actors on the darknet. Prominent case here is the pro-Russian ransomware group „Conti“. What we are currently witnessing is an unprecedented underground war on the net.

3. Could the conflict in Ukraine also create more cyber-attacks?

In fact, this is already the case, as the number of cyberattacks carried out worldwide has increased significantly since the start of the war. New groups have also formed on the darknet with the sole aim of waging cyberwar, such as the IT Army of Ukraine. It can be said overall that cyberattacks in this war have become far more destructive, organized, and ruthless. In addition, many institutions suffer collateral damage to their IT infrastructure as a result of a cyberattack because, for example, they use the same software that has a vulnerability that is exploited in the war. And at this point at the latest, the darknet also finds itself in a conflict of interest and dilemma, because of course it also reflects the deep ties that once existed between Russia and Ukraine. And this also explains why the situation on the darknet is so contradictory and why different views suddenly clash here. However, the darknet is ultimately nothing other than a mirror of current geopolitics, and the conflicts that are being played out here are thus no different than those that are also taking place on the Clear Web.

Date of recording: May 5, 2022

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