The Estonians just wanted to relocate a statue. Ten years ago today, authorities in Tallinn set out to remove a Soviet World War II memorial from the capital’s downtown. The Russian government had warned that removing the statue would be “disastrous for Estonians,” but since Moscow no longer called the shots in the Baltic state, the statue was duly shipped off to a suburban military cemetery. Soon after, Estonians found that they couldn’t use much of the internet. They couldn’t access newspapers online, or government websites. Bank accounts were suddenly inaccessible. “It was unheard of, and no one understood what was going on in the beginning,” Toomas Hendrik Ilves, then Estonian President, told Foreign Policy. Soon, he was informed that it was not an internal failure — but an attack from the outside. It was a Distributed Denial of Service Attack — an orchestrated swarm of internet traffic that literally swamps servers and shuts down websites for hours or days.
That was made crystal clear at the stroke of midnight on May 9 GMT, when Russia celebrates Victory in Europe day for World War II. Annoying cyber attacks dramatically intensified for exactly 24 hours, then trailed off as fast as they’d spiked. Ilves asked his cyber experts what happened. “Well, the money ran out,” he was told — the attack had been bought and paid for by someone — or some state — using criminal hackers to cripple one of the most internet-dependent states in the world.
“Looking back on it, it was the first, but hardly the last, case in which a kind of cyber attack … was done in an overtly political manner,” Ilves said.
Estonia marked a watershed in the use of state-sanctioned cyber attacks to advance foreign policy goals. “Ten years ago, [Russia] put everyone on notice that it was willing to behave badly in cyberspace,” said Jason Healey, a senior research scholar at Columbia University. (Moscow denies any role in the 2007 Estonia hack.) Since then, Russia has melded cyber into broader strategies that combine hacks with information war, hybrid war, or old-fashioned conventional war in a bid to advance Moscow’s aims. And it hasn’t been shy about using them.