How Microsoft was on the “front lines” of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict from the start

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Microsoft President Brad Smith explains the Redmond-based company’s role in the early days of the war.

REDMOND, Wash. — That’s quite the statement.

“The front line between Ukraine and Russia actually runs through Redmond, Washington,” Microsoft Chairman Brad Smith said as he sat on the company’s campus one afternoon in May. .

Smith, for the first time, publicly explained how the company helped repel a Russian attack on Ukraine and how the Russians signaled they were about to launch a physical invasion.

“I think one of the interesting things that historians will ultimately ask is when did this war start, and who saw the first shots? The conventional wisdom is that Russia invaded Ukraine from February 24. But the truth is that we started to see the cyber attacks launched against Ukraine, February 23, the day before, and I think historians could well conclude that these are the first shots, and that they were seen for the first time, not in Ukraine itself, but in Redmond,” Smith said.

Smith is referring to the Microsoft Threat Intelligence Center (TIC) and Digital Security Unit (DSU), which operate from a top-secret facility in Redmond. The TIC tracks “nation-state actors” and the DSU analyzes activity.

Smith said that Microsoft, with its partnerships with Ukrainian officials on Windows platforms, could see these Russian nation-state actors using malware with names like “FoxBlade” or “DesertBlade” to attack. the country.

These actors have specifically targeted Ukraine’s internet and nuclear capabilities, as well as electricity supply. The attacks targeted specific locations in territories near the capital kyiv and the eastern flank of Kharkiv. There were 22 attacks, according to Microsoft, in the first few days alone. On one day in particular the Russians deployed a malware attack on a major Ukrainian broadcasting company, on the same day they also physically attacked a TV tower.

The Eastside’s “Special Forces” tech team rushed to write code for Windows devices, which could be seen as a cyber “stinger missile” that Smith says successfully took out many attacks and keep Ukraine going.

“What we see is almost potentially an early warning signal. If the Russian military wants to go to a new site, they can try to shut down the computers an hour before the troops start closing in, or that artillery shells don’t start firing,” he said. mentioned. “It’s a responsibility we take very seriously. I think with each month of war in Ukraine we learn new things, as you always do in a war, not only about how we can be more effective, but on the need for us to be ever more effective.”

Smith also added that the war made him reflect on when the Russians may have started testing such a method, and how it first dealt with how Russia spread disinformation.

“The person who first brought this to my attention was Vladimir Zelenskyy. I was talking to him last September, when of course he was the president of Ukraine. of everyone as he is today,” Smith explains, “What do you really see that worries you? He immediately went to describe how in January 2021 Ukrainians saw Russians experimenting with misinformation vaccines. They often use Ukraine as a training ground. Smith continues: “We start out thinking it’s about politics, but it’s about much more than politics. Especially when you have technology platforms that can allow an authoritarian foreign government to seek to erode trust in a democratic society.”

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