Special forces thwart cyber attack as hackers spread fake news to damage US-Polish relations
Polish news websites have come under cyber-attack aimed at damaging Poland’s military alliance with the United States.
The attacks, which targeted several national and regional news sites, involved hackers posting articles ridiculing the effectiveness and preparedness of Polish soldiers and equipment.
The doctored articles claim that a US commander criticised Polish soldiers saying “the only thing they can fire is knicker elastic”.
An article with similar content to those used in the cyber-attack was placed on The Duran, a site notorious for pushing Russian propaganda and amplifying Russia’s disinformation efforts.
The article was based on a fabricated interview with Lt. Gen. Christopher G. Cavolin, which had the title “US official had no mercy for Polish soldiers”.
The ‘interview’ was then reprinted by other news websites, which increased the scale of the impact of the forged narrative.
The cyber-attack comes just days before the next phase of US-led multinational exercise DEFENDER-Europe-20 in Poland, which starts on 5 June.
Polish officials and analysts say the source of the attack can be traced back to the Kremlin.
Stanisław Żaryn, spokesperson for minister for the coordination of special services, wrote on a government website that the attacks are “in line with Kremlin propaganda”.
He added that “the information attack concerned military cooperation between Poland and the USA.”
The fake articles were placed on Niezalezna.pl, Radio Szczecin, Telewizja Republika, Olsztyn24.com and ePoznan.pl.
To make the articles more credible, they contained information that their source was press agencies including the Polish Press Agency (PAP).
The head of PAP, Wojciech Surmacz, dismissed the claims as nonsense saying: “It was not a PAP dispatch.”
Administrators of the hacked websites blocked the articles. However, some websites became re-infected with content in the sustained attack.
Żaryn wrote that the narratives featured in the articles correspond with the long-term activities Russia undertakes against Poland.
Among the objectives of the attack, he listed: undermining the cohesion of NATO, destabilising US-Polish political ties, smearing the Polish Armed Forces, depicting them as being backward, accusing Polish soldiers of being badly trained and undermining the reliability of Poland’s Defence Minister, make him look ridiculous in the eyes of the military.
Russian cyber-attacks on Poland and its military are not new but Kamil Basaj, a cyber security expert from the Info Ops Poland Foundation, suggests that the latest attack is an escalation.
He said on Polish Radio that “this attack is different from other incidents of this type as the choice of media are much larger reach than niche portals through which this type of information has been propagated so far.”
“The recent attacks, including this week's one, are part of an attempt to create a negative image of the Polish Army, the combat capabilities of Polish soldiers, and the low capacity of the weapon systems,” he added.
Although this hacking attempt was identified and averted, Basaj believes that the Kremlin is playing a longer game.
“[These attacks] are not always aimed at producing effects in the short-term. Sometimes they are simply designed to create an information resource that will be used in the future,” he said.
Defender Europe-20 is the largest deployment of US-based forces to Europe in more than 25 years with 20,000 soldiers deployed directly from the US to Europe.
The exercises in June will involve around 6,000 Polish and US soldiers, 100 tanks and over 230 combat vehicles, which will train at the Drawsko Pomorskie training grounds in Western Pomerania.