Key Points

  • This report examines the threat posed by Russia-linked advanced persistent threat (APT) groups on operational technology (OT) by analyzing key cyber attacks from the past 12 months, conducted by threat actors with a Russia nexus. Networks defenders may find the detection rules and key recommendations detailed in this report useful.
  • Recommended mitigations for the tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) observed in an incident addressed by ReliaQuest for a manufacturing industry customer included: limiting new account creations exclusively to individuals with appropriate privileges to prevent account creation, and managing file sharing communications to avoid the misuse of named pipes to mitigate lateral tool transfer.
  • We expect Russia state-linked cyber activity to continue focusing on Ukraine as the war continues. We also expect Russia to combine disruption of short-term operations with long-term stealth tactics for espionage purposes.
  • It is a realistic possibility that Russian-speaking financially motivated cybercriminal groups will intentionally target organizations operating OT at the state’s behest, under the guise of ransomware.

This report, the third in our blog series focusing on threats to OT, examines the threat posed by Russia-linked APT groups to OT environments. We analyze key Russian cyber attacks targeting companies that are major users of OT. In keeping with the other installments in this series, we will review the TTPs used in a cyber attack affecting one of ReliaQuest’s customers operating in the manufacturing sector and provide key detections and recommendations. This report will be particularly useful for organizations that have incorporated, or are planning to incorporate, OT in their infrastructure.


Russia is one of a few countries with proven offensive cyber capabilities, as well as an aggressive domestic surveillance policy. Externally, Russia’s interests increasingly lie in economic development, reclaiming control of former Soviet nations (as evidenced by the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war), and building strategic partnerships. Several prominent APT groups operate in Russia conducting espionage operations on behalf of the state. Typically, these activities focus on gathering strategic or valuable information deemed useful to the Russian government.

Many sophisticated and persistent financially motivated threat groups also operate in Russia. When announcing sanctions against the Russian cybercriminal group “Evil Corp”, the US Treasury proclaimed that the group’s leader provided “direct assistance to the Russian government’s malicious cyber efforts.” It is believed that the Russian government frequently enlists cybercriminal groups to support its cyber operations, therefore demonstrating a distinct overlap between cybercriminal and APT groups that operate in the interests of the Russian government.

The gathering of information in Russia is likely the responsibility of various intelligence agencies. Where cyber operations are concerned, the main agencies involved are:

  • The Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR): Responsible for intelligence and espionage activities outside Russia.
  • The Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces (GRU): Responsible for the supply of military intelligence to the Russian president and military, as well as ensuring Russia’s domestic, economic, and technological security.

Key OT Cyber Incidents

Attacks by Russia-linked threat actors reported in the past 12 months, targeting OT, have unsurprisingly focused on critical infrastructure in Ukraine to support Russia’s wartime efforts. The Russia-Ukraine war is the first conflict to involve significant levels of cyber operations from both sides, to support on-the-ground activity. During the war, Russia-linked groups have conducted attacks more frenzied and destructive than those previously observed. However, this activity has still been coupled with long-term, stealthy information-gathering attacks.

Some attacks discovered in the past 12 months occurred several months or years before they were reported, demonstrating the stealth and persistence with which Russia-linked groups operate. These attacks have also indirectly affected organizations that use OT. Below, we take a closer look at a few incidents.

Coordinated Attacks on Denmark’s Energy Sector

In May 2023, multiple Danish energy companies were simultaneously targeted by cyber attacks originating from Russia. In these attacks, adversaries exploited CVE-2023-28771, a critical vulnerability in Zyxel firewalls. Eleven organizations were successfully compromised, and many more were forced to disable internet connectivity, affecting business operations. Once a network was compromised, unauthenticated attackers could execute commands with root privileges on the Zyxel firewall. However, attackers were discovered and stopped before they could gain access to critical infrastructure.

Based on the infrastructure used, the attacks were attributed to Russia’s GRU-linked “Sandworm Team” with low confidence. Analysis also identified that the targets of these attacks were pre-selected to allow for a coordinated attack; such coordination requires significant planning and resource. These attacks demonstrate how Russia has targeted regions supportive of Ukraine, in the context of the war.

Ukraine’s Biggest Telecommunications Provider Compromised

Russia-linked threat actors reportedly gained access to the networks of Kyivstar, Ukraine’s biggest telecommunications provider, as early as May 2023. In December 2023, they launched their attack, causing days-long service outages as zero-day malware wiped information from thousands of servers and devices, including all cloud storage and backup systems. Analysis indicated an employee’s valid account was likely compromised, allowing the attackers to move laterally and access administrator accounts.

“Solntsepek,” a cyber threat group linked to Sandworm Team, claimed responsibility for this attack, citing Kyivstar’s association with Ukraine’s military communications as the reason it was targeted. This activity destroyed Kyivstar’s ability to operate, but did not affect Ukraine’s military communications, as intended. Sandworm Team has breached at least 11 Ukrainian telecommunications providers since May 2023.

JetBrains Flaw Exploited

In December 2023, Russia’s SVR-linked APT group “APT29” exploited CVE-2023-42793 in JetBrains TeamCity servers to compromise multiple organizations. CVE-2023-42793 is an authentication bypass flaw that, if exploited, allows an unauthenticated attacker to steal sensitive information and conduct Dynamic Link Library (DLL) hijacking to compromise the integrity of software releases. By exploiting the vulnerability, APT29 gained access to its target’s networks, including those in the manufacturing sector.

During the attacks, APT29 used the Bring Your Own Vulnerable Driver (BYOVD) technique to avoid detection, escalated privileges, and used Windows Management Instrumentation for lateral movement, before deploying additional backdoors to ensure persistence to the compromised networks. This event underscores the risk of supply-chain attacks and threats posed by threat actors who exploit traditional IT systems to gain access and pivot to OT.

2022 Ukrainian Power Grid Hack

In November 2023, researchers reported that Sandworm Team was responsible for a 2022 attack on a Ukrainian critical infrastructure organization. While the initial access method for the organization’s IT network is unknown, Sandworm Team gained access to OT through a hypervisor hosting a supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) management instance for a substation environment. Sandworm Team used a native Living-off-the-Land binary (LOLBIN) to disrupt the OT environment, executing code within an end-of-life MicroSCADA control system and issuing commands to trip connected substation circuit breakers. The associated power outage coincided with physical missile attacks on Ukraine’s energy network.

Sandworm Team reportedly had access to the organization’s SCADA system for up to three months, suggesting the group was waiting to conduct the attack in conjunction with on-the-ground activity for maximum impact. By using LOLBINs, Sandworm Team made it more challenging for network defenders to detect the group’s activity. The techniques used in this campaign suggest Russia’s offensive OT capabilities are growing as the state develops new tools to exploit different OT infrastructure in its attacks.

Ransomware Hits UK Water Supplier

In January 2024, the UK water services company Southern Water was impacted by a ransomware attack. Southern Water provides water services to 2.5 million people and wastewater services to 4.7 million people in the South of England. The Russian-speaking ransomware group “Black Basta” named Southern Water on its data-leak website, claiming to have exfiltrated 750GB of data from the company.

While the operations of Southern Water were not affected by this incident, it is likely that sensitive information was stolen from the organization. At the time of writing, there is no indication that Black Basta conducted this attack at the behest of the Russian government; however, given we know the Russian state has previously used cybercriminal groups in its attacks, it is realistically possible that sensitive information obtained during this attack has been shared with the state.

Russia-Linked OT Malware

Russia is among a few nation-states that has developed offensive cyber capabilities specifically aimed at targeting OT. Although the release of each malware iteration typically spans several years, the development of such malware displays Russia’s ongoing commitment and investment in compromising these systems. Below are examples of the most recent Russia-linked OT-specific malware.


Reported in May 2023 and in use since at least December 2021, “COSMICENERGY” is a novel malware designed to target OT and industrial control systems (ICS). The malware can cause disruption to electrical power by interacting with IEC 60870-5-104 devices. This includes remote terminal units (RTUs) commonly used across Europe, the Middle East, and Asia for electric transmissions and distribution. COSMICENERGY has two components; “PIEHOP” and “LIGHTWORK.” PIEHOP is used to connect to MSSQL servers and issues commands to the RTUs. LIGHTWORK then modifies RTUs over TCP.

Researchers believe COSMICENERGY was developed by a contractor to the Russian government for use in red team exercises. However, it is realistically possible the malware was used by cyber threat actors; collaboration with government contactors or use of their tools is commonplace for APT groups. COSMICENERGY possesses capabilities like those of the “Industroyer” malware and requires internal reconnaissance for successful deployment. The malware takes advantage of the insecure-by-design nature of some OT systems, which is unlikely to be remediated soon, rendering all OT users vulnerable to COSMICENERGY attacks. Consequently, detecting any compromise early will be key to prevent it spreading throughout a network.

Industroyer, Industroyer2

Industroyer (aka “CrashOverride”), is a modular malware designed to disrupt working processes of ICS, especially in electrical substations. It was detected after Sandworm Team used it in a 2016 attack on a Ukrainian electrical substation. During the attack, Sandworm Team took direct control of switches and circuit breakers, causing Kyiv to lose power for one hour. Industroyer comprises a main backdoor, launcher module, and several payloads.

In the 2016 attack, Industroyer connected to a remote command-and-control (C2) server using HTTPS to receive commands. It then executed four payloads that spread through the substation’s network searching for devices they could communicate with. After opening every circuit breaker simultaneously, causing a power cut, Industroyer deployed a data-wiping malware to help cover their traces; however, the wiper failed multiple times during the incident.

In April 2022, “Industroyer2” was discovered following an attack targeting OT supporting an electrical substation near Kyiv. Industroyer2 was specifically designed to disable circuit-breaker failure protections for the exact systems used in the targeted substation’s network. However, Industroyer2 failed to cause a blackout in Ukraine due to the rapid response from the targeted company’s defenders. Like its predecessor, Industroyer2 is believed to be affiliated with Sandworm Team.

Case Study

Cyber attacks affecting OT, even when initially directed at IT systems, can be costly for organizations. Revenue may be lost due to production downtime, which also impacts the organization’s reputation and the broader supply chain.

In early 2021, the ReliaQuest Threat Hunting team responded to an incident wherein Russia-linked threat actors compromised the networks of a manufacturing organization, affecting operations at both the production control and plant levels. The threat group seemingly pivoted from the customer’s IT environment to the OT environment, rather than directly targeting OT. During the investigation, we identified the C2 server used by the threat actors. Research on the C2 domain linked the attack to the “DarkSide” ransomware.

Throughout the incident, we observed the threat actors use Cobalt Strike and attempt to disable the antivirus on the host. The threat actors continually renamed the ransomware variant in an attempt to obscure their activity. The decrypting tool available at the time of the incident for DarkSide ransomware did not work in the customer’s incident, suggesting either a new variant was used or the existing variant was updated during the campaign.

By analyzing this incident, we observed threat actors using the following TTPs. We’ve listed detection rules for each TTP at the end of this report.

Account Discovery: Domain Account (T1087.002)

We observed the following commands being used by threat actors to identify domain accounts:

  • exe /C net user admAcc /domain
  • net group “Domain Admins” /domain
  • net user svcAcc /domain
  • net user admAcc /domain
  • net user admAcc /domain

Create Account: Domain Account, Local Account (T1136)

We observed the threat actors creating accounts with local and domain account permissions. We also observed threat actors adding several existing accounts to the domain account group. The threat actors did this to maintain persistence.

Lateral Tool Transfer (T1570)

Named pipe impersonation is a Windows feature that can be abused to escalate privileges within a system. In this incident, we observed the NamedPipeImpersonation hacking tool being used to achieve privilege escalation. This technique has been integrated into offensive tools, like Cobalt Strike (also used in this incident) and is regularly used by threat actors.

System Services: Service Execution (T1569.002)

We observed the threat actors conducting PSEXEC pivoting in this incident. PSEXEC allows users to connect to, and remotely execute, processes on other systems. An adversary could connect to an internal share of an internal host and upload the PSEXEC program. From here they can execute it and begin sending remote commands to fully compromise the host.

Threat Forecast

As the Russia-Ukraine war shows no sign of abating, it is highly likely that Russia-linked threat groups will continue to focus efforts on targeting Ukrainian critical infrastructure in the mid-term future. In the context of the war, it is also likely that these groups will continue to target the critical infrastructure of countries or regions that are supportive of Ukraine. The groups’ attacks will be designed to cause immediate impact and disruption, but defenders will be able to detect them quickly.

We anticipate that Russia-linked threat actors will seek access to the networks of organizations using OT for long-term espionage operations. Contrary to the potential quick-fire attacks on critical infrastructure, the threat actors or groups responsible for these slower operations will likely work with increased stealth and sophistication to avoid detection, aiming to disrupt a country’s critical infrastructure at a time that coincides with geopolitical events or real-world wartime operations.

It is realistically possible that Russian-speaking cybercriminals will increasingly target OT devices. This will likely be conducted under the guise of ransomware, but the main purpose will be exfiltration of sensitive information to share with the Russian state or to completely wipe data, leaving the victim organization with no means to decrypt the malware.

The ReliaQuest Threat Research team is monitoring these groups and their TTPs, providing detections to our customers and recommendations to the broader public to protect against the associated threats.

What ReliaQuest Is Doing

In addition to providing our customer’s with TTP detection rules, ReliaQuest:

  • Tracks threat groups with a Russia nexus in the form of intelligence updates and threat profiles in the GreyMatter Intelligence content library. Topics include threat actor TTPs, indicators of compromise (IoCs), tools, and attack campaign details.
  • Adds high-fidelity IoCs to threat feeds to enable detection.
  • Conducts threat hunting following an assessment of triggered alerts.

Recommendations and Best Practices

ReliaQuest recommends separating OT network from IT networks, where possible, to better contain potential threats and implementing strong authentication methods, role-based access, and location-based logins. TTP specific recommendations follow.

Account Discovery: Domain Account

  • Use Group Policy Objects (GPOs) to create policies that restrict the execution of specific applications.

Create Account: Domain Account, Local Account

  • Implement multifactor authentication for user and privileged accounts.
  • Limit the number of accounts permitted to create other accounts.
  • Limit the number of local administrator accounts used for day-to-day operations to reduce the exposure of such accounts to potential adversaries.

Lateral Tool Transfer

  • Implement network traffic filtering and restrict file sharing communications, particularly those utilizing protocols such as server message block (SMB).
  • Manage file sharing communications to avoid the misuse of named pipes.

System Services: Service Execution

  • Ensure privileged accounts are managed and monitored for suspicious activity. Ensure that users with lower permission levels are not allowed to create or interact with services running at higher permission levels.
  • Restrict file and directory permissions by ensuring that high permission level service binaries cannot be replaced or modified by users with a lower permission level.

Exploit Public-Facing Application

  • Ensure all devices are kept up to date and software is regularly maintained.
  • Implement a web application firewall to prevent traffic associated with exploits accessing the network.
  • Change default credentials to strong, complex passwords.