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Ukraine's defense applies lessons from a 15-year-old cyberattack on Estonia

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Major companies and large businesses in the United States have been on high alert in recent weeks. They've been warned by security experts that they could be targeted by a Russian cyberattack and become collateral damage in Russia's war on Ukraine. Back in 2007, the small Baltic nation of Estonia became the first to know what that's like, and lessons learned then are being applied to defend Ukraine and other nations now. NPR's cybersecurity correspondent Jenna McLaughlin has this report from Estonia.

JENNA MCLAUGHLIN, BYLINE: It all started with a statue, a Soviet war memorial in the heart of Estonia's capital city, Tallinn.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHVIED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Plans to move the Bronze Soldier in Tallinn led to riots, outrage and the first cyberattack ever attempted on an entire nation state.

LAURI ALLMAN: Looking back at those events exactly 15 years ago, I think we can say that what started to unroll in Estonia perhaps was a prequel or a rehearsal or some sort of drill for what was to follow in the world.

MCLAUGHLIN: Lauri Allman was the permanent secretary of the Estonian Ministry of Defense in 2007, when the Estonian government noticed that a Soviet World War II memorial known as the Bronze Soldier had become a focal point of Russian nationalism. Suspected Russian operatives encouraged gatherings there, planting bouquets of flowers at the monument, stirring up tensions among Estonia's large Russian-speaking population. So the government decided to relocate the Bronze Soldier from central Tallinn to what Almann said was a more appropriate place - a military cemetery. Or at least that was the plan.

ALLMAN: We put around the fence and the tent on top of the statue, and immediately the riots...

(SOUNDBITE OF RIOT)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Speaking Russian).

MCLAUGHLIN: Russian state media seized on the symbolism of a displaced Soviet statue, evidence, they claimed, of discrimination against ethnic Russians in Estonia. Riots and looting exploded in old town Tallinn. One writer was killed. Dozens more were injured.

ALLMAN: In the first days, that was our crisis. This is what we were dealing with. Russian propaganda was already in full gear. Prime minister was speaking with Angela Merkel. It was that level of crisis.

MCLAUGHLIN: Allman's team tried to put out an official press release to counter the disinformation circulating online. The government website wouldn't load. Allman woke up the Minister of Defense with a 3 a.m. text message.

ALLMAN: Minister, I believe we are under cyberattack. Then I pushed send, and then I thought, OK, the world has definitely changed.

MCLAUGHLIN: It was a denial-of-service attack. Russia had flooded Estonian government websites with a deluge of traffic, causing the sites to crash - media sites, the biggest bank, Estonian leadership quickly saw how the disruption, coupled with the real-world riots, could breed panic and mistrust, so they shut down the internet until they got the cyberattack under control. All in all, the attack lasted 22 days.

MERLE MAIGRE: I think Estonia has been good at not letting any crisis go to waste, and Estonia has been, in that sense, privileged in a way to have had an early wakeup call.

MCLAUGHLIN: Merle Maigre is a cybersecurity expert with Estonia's e-Governance Academy. Her team has been working with the Ukrainian Ministry of Digital Transformation to help build up its digital skills, including cybersecurity. Maigre says there could be a lot of reasons we haven't seen Russia take out Ukraine's power grid, but one of them is the fact that Estonia's NATO allies learned a lot from the 2007 Bronze Soldier attack. Over the past 15 years, E-Estonia has become a global leader in cybersecurity.

MAIGRE: Russia recognizes the capacity of the Western allies to reciprocate very fast and very concretely, and they are very careful.

SIIM MARVEET: Up until now, war has been shells flying, bullets flying in every direction, and we haven't had a huge conflict where IT played a role.

MCLAUGHLIN: Private Siim Marveet was in the first grade when Russia attacked Estonian cyberspace. Today, Marveet is a conscript in Estonia's Cyber Defense Forces, one of the measures the country has taken as a result of the 2007 attack. He's training for all contingencies.

MARVEET: In wartime, we won't get the chance to sit in a nice, quiet room. We're going to have to move out into the forest, hide somewhere so that we can do our main job, which is protecting the IT systems. So if someone can imagine what a server room looks like, if we need to move that to some place in the middle of a forest, that's a whole lot of work.

MCLAUGHLIN: Estonians are confident that if a war with Russia came their way, they'd be ready. They've rebuffed recent cyberattacks since the invasion, but the impacts are barely noticeable compared to 15 years ago, in part because that attack showed Russia's cyber playbook, seen for years in Ukraine and elsewhere. But with Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Allman sees the results of Estonian patience and persistence.

ALLMAN: Years of work, years of lies, years of boilerplate denials, and now we have Ukraine, and nobody believes. And this is how we win.

MCLAUGHLIN: And as for the Bronze Soldier, the monument ringed by a dozen surveillance cameras, it now sits in a military cemetery just down the street from the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence. Jenna McLaughlin, NPR News, Tallinn, Estonia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.