RULEAKS: Russian Media and Disinformation in Ukraine by the DNR-ONLINE
Back in December I located a dump of data on the darknet placed there by a hacker collective in Ukraine called RUH8. The dump is rather good sized and all come from Russian backed Ukraine sources. RUH8’s dumped one group in particular that I was interested in because I located a piece of malware in the email spool that, once run through the usual tests, showed to be something not widely seen before. I will cover the malware further down the article and will include IOC’s but once I harvested the email spool itself and began to get things translated things got even more interesting.
Once I mirrored the site I got some help from <REDACTED> and set to work in translation of emails and documents attachments. Most of the bulk of the dump is average emails concerning daily business but a few began to tell a tale of the company that the emails came from and how it was in fact a Russian front organization created for propaganda in Ukraine and used to manipulate the populace in the Donetsk People’s Republic (The Russian separatist area of Ukraine) and those outside it including other countries outside of Ukraine.
Having all of this come to light just after the election win for Trump, and now coming out here in the midst of the Russian intervention and collusion investigations today, I thought this report would be prescient and give a rare insight into how the Russian propaganda machine works, how the intelligence apparatus of Russia works in this respect, and perhaps bring to light a new piece of malware for everyone to see.
The leak by RUH8 in the darknet consists od more than a few entities email spools as well as individuals that they have described as assets of Russia. In the case of this post the data comes from the domain dir-online.ru. This is a media org in Ukraine that is Russian backed and as I said before caters to the Donetsk People’s Republic. Within the dump there are many documents covering the day to day but five documents stood out amongst them all (frankly there are more to be analyzed and one needs Russian speakers to translate them all) as being all things shady.
RUH8 is also the group that hacked and dumped “The Grey Cardinal’s” email spool as well. Having gone through that spool I did not find any malware of merit or anything that was new so I moved on in mirroring and checking for goodies. They keep adding content to the site too so I would expect eventually I will locate some more goodies in the future. Keep an eye on the blog for more when I find it. The Grey Cardinal though is an interesting figure and I recommend you all read up on him as well.
THE PROPAGANDA PLAN:
Right, well on to the good stuff! The following documents found in this dump show Russia’s machinations at propaganda in Ukraine, well, at least this small slice of it.
From Translator: This talks about “anti-Russian hysteria” in the media and about disinformation and fake news that makes Russia look bad. And also that pro-Russian voices are accused of being agents of the Kremlin. To counter this, this document outlines a project to create a pro-Kremlin media campaign in the Ukraine that includes a budget for hiring journalists and buying equipment like computers and voice recorders, a budget for freelancers and “insiders”, Website hosting, web administrators, editors, advertising, The amounts — which are, for some reason, in US Dollars, are $9,250 for initial set-up expenses, and $38,280 ongoing costs. Those could be monthly costs — the salary of a full-time journalist is listed at $2,000, and that’s likely to be $2,000 a month. The editor in chief, who’ll be based in Kiev, will get $2,500 a month. Hey, their freelance budget is $6,000 a month!
From Translator: is a little disturbing, since it outlines how the anti-war movement in the Ukraine can be used for pro-Russian purposes. For example, the idea is to create a picture of the leaders in Kremlin as corrupt power-grabbers who are using the war in eastern Ukraine to distract everyone from their own problems. Russia’s invasion of eastern Ukraine is just misformation from Kiev. Sounds totally legit.
Oh, and I figure out why it’s all in US Dollars. Hah, this is funny. Way back when I was based in Russia — something like 20 years ago, when the Soviet Union had just collapsed, inflation was rampant. Stores had to change the prices on all their products several times a day! To deal with it, they all switched to using Dollars or Euros instead, the traitors! To fix the problem, instead of fixing the economy, the Russian government outlawed the use of foreign currencies on prices. So what the stores did was switch to using something called the “arbitrary unit” — which just happened to be worth as much as the dollar, by pure coincidence. Ever since then, this “arbitrary unit” has been the default price. It particularly convenient during inflationary periods, or when dealing with local currencies in different republics. Plus, everyone knows what it means. So, in this document, they use the term “arbitrary unit” and in others, they seem to have just used the dollar symbol instead.
Also, I can confirm that the ongoing expenses are per month — they spelled that out in this budget.
So anyway, this is another juicy document. They’ve put together a budget for running a fake anti-war grassroots organization.
Initial costs are $79,200 for things like computer equipment, recruiting, registering domain names and getting business and media licenses, and website design. It’s interesting that in both this budget and the previous one I looked at, they’re careful to get all the permits and licenses in place. They might be trying to undermine the government of a foreign country, but at least they’ve got all their paperwork in order!
Then the ongoing expenses are $86,000 and include salaries for regular contributors and freelancers, salaries for editorial managers and copyeditors, a financial manager and their deputy, $2,000 for a lawyer, $20,000 for online advertising, and $10,000 for promotion on social media like Facebook and VKontakte (Russia’s LinkedIn).
They’re expecting 100,000 unique visitors a day on weekdays.
It’s interesting they note that they’ll be playing games with the tax status of their employees — like in the U.S., there’s a difference between paying people as staff (where the employer has to pay a chunk of the taxes) and as freelancers (where the poor schmuck has to pay for everything). Also, in Ukraine, folks living in the disputed territories don’t have to pay taxes. They’re saying that they can save 40% as a result of playing around with this, which they claim is common practice in the Ukraine.
So not only are they undermining a foreign government, but trying to avoid paying taxes while they do it! I don’t know which is worse.
Document docxk7EDEjG06i is a plan for creating a major national media outlet from scratch. It will take $347,640 in startup costs, and about $146,500 a month in ongoing expensies. Total costs, for an eight-month period, are $3.82 million, including advertising costs, and other related expenses. Again, they’re playing around with the taxes. And they’re expecting to get a quarter million visitors a day on weekdays.
This one also has a budget for protection against DDOS attacks. They estimate that this will cost $2,000 a month (including the site hosting itself).
They also plan to sell advertising here, and have an ad sales department, and the editor in chief’s salary will be $10,000 a month plus a share of the ad revenues.
That’s not too shabby… Then they’ve got some projections for costs and revenues after that first eight-month period, which is interesting for those of our readers who plan to launch an online magazine in the Ukraine…
From Translator: This is super evil. I’m really impressed! The idea is is to create a pro-European, anti-Russian website — with the underlying message that the Ukraine will be better off without those annoying eastern provinces, and let Russia have them, so that it can enjoy its wonderful European future without them dragging the country down. So, again, they have an editorial budget. $69,900 in setup expenses, $65,000 a month in ongoing expenses, and plans to reach 100,000 readers a day on weekdays.
From Translator: This is a plan to create a news site to cover the conflict in the disputed territories, because people are hungry for war news. The idea is to make it seem objective and independent, but slip in a pro-Russian point of view. So they’ll use terms associated with anti-Russian reporting, but slant the coverage to make Ukraine look bad. Yicch. Startup expenses: $97,200, ongoing expenses: $126,500 per month, expected audience: 120,000 unique visitors a day during weekdays.
From Translator: This is an analysis of the Ukrainian political system and how a lot of work is done by “shadow” organizations in government. There don’t seem to be any action items here.
From translator: This is an overview of the Ukrainian media climate, and on how anti-Russian it is, and blames Western advisers for some of it.
So here is the context from these documents from the translator for you…
From Translator: These emails seem to have been sent to Georgi Bryusov, who heads up Russia’s wresting federation, and are in reference to a meeting with “PB.” I don’t know who “PB” is.
Bryusov then forwarded them on to Surkov.
So, how likely is this?
Well, I spent a some time covering a similar conflict in Georgia, where there was also a “separatist” province, called Abkhazia, and the conflict there was used to put pressure on the Georgian government. Although it was supposed to be a purely local, homegrown movement, Abkhazia — which didn’t even have an airport — somehow had fighter jets and bombed Georgian-controlled areas with them. (I was in one of those areas with a group of UN observers while it was being bombed. Fun! The Georgians shot down one of the planes which … surprise, surprise! … turned out to have a Russian pilot inside.)
Russia also paid the operating costs for the Abhazian press center, where I spent many a happy day. All international phones calls were free! I could call my editors anywhere in the world, and file stories about the brave Abkhazian rebels! They also fed us and provided us a place to sleep, and organized regular trips to the front lines where we could enjoy being shot at by the Georgians. They also showed us how well prisoners of war were treated and corpses of people killed by the Georgias and, allegedly, mutilated. (Though the Red Cross folks I talked to couldn’t confirm that the mutilations were real and not, say, the expected results of getting too close to an explosion.)
Anyway, the bottom line is that I do have personal experience of Russian spending gold to manipulate the media, in case anyone ever had any doubts that they were willing to do it.
As you can see from the commentary above, and you too can read the documents as well, the Russians set up a media company including websites and formulated plans to manipulate people toward the Donetsk People’s Republic and against a Free Ukraine. I am still going through the dump looking for the bills for the domains mentioned as well and will run them through Threatcrowd and other sources to see if they were used at all for malware C2 and propagation. Which brings me to the use of dnr-online as a C2. Interestingly enough the site itself is not a C2 but it does have connectivity to other IP addresses and domains that are.
The archology of malware that talks to 126.96.36.199 is rather interesting. There’s a bit of everything bad attached to that one to be sure including that MrSweet address that is ransomeware central. 188.8.131.52 is owned/created by beget.ru which has quite the many few dirty connections as well.
Of course beget could be innocent enough but as you can see there is enough of Mos Eisley in there to make one not want to get an account there and set up a site right? I will continue to look into other domains within the networks that dnr-online bought as soon as I can locate the bills for them or domain names and that will be another post I am sure. What all of this tells you though, is that the Russians have always been carrying out these kinds of active measures against people like those in Ukraine as well as what they did to us in the election of 2016. This is not a one time deal and certainly will not be the last one we shall see. In fact, the bots and the domains will continue to be set up by the likes of the SVR and GRU in hopes of manipulating the general populace toward the goals of the Putin regime until it’s demise.
… and likely past it.
THE MALWARE & GROUNDBAIT:
Right! now on to the other interesting bit found in the dump from dnr-online. In looking at the spool I dumped all attachments into a folder and began checking them for malware. All the word docs, excel sheet, power-points etc. The docs all checked out but one zip file had a .scr file in it that turned out to be malware. The file (Центр управления восстановлением ДНР справка-доклад за 13 октября 2015 года.exe) Center for Recovery Management of the DNR certificate-report for October 13, 2015.exe came from an email comiing in from a Russian source to the head of dnr-online. I am unable to source the headers at this time of the email but the question becomes was this malware sent to the DNR by RUH8 or was this malware sent to DNR to send to others in some other campaign. I cannot say either way but, the malware is a new sample of GROUNDBAIT or Prikormka that was detected and reported on by ESET running rampant in Ukraine. Given that ESET claims that this malware was being used against the separatists in Ukraine it stands to reason that the logic here is that the malware was to be used by the propaganda campaign against those it was seeking to manipulate. However, the nagging thing for me is the way this was passed around. The email has no real context in the text and to me it seems to imply that it is a fix for things inside dnr. My other thought is that maybe someone got hold of the GROUNDBAIT raw sample and re-used it by re-packing it and setting it against dnr-online.
An interesting notion…
I contacted ESET and talked a bit with the guy who did the work and he was.. Well.. Not so helpful. So here are the IOC’s for this file for you all to look for.
Filename: Recovery Control Center Help DNR-Report for October 13, 2015
SHA256: f9a96ad58fb946981d196d653ec28fa31d6f946a7e2f6784b317dd9adc557b62 (AV positives: 52/57 scanned on 04/30/2016 07:33:42)
File raw: zip file: zipnh4dZDtMUk.zip
“archive.rar” has type “gzip compressed data from NTFS filesystem (NT)”
“helpldr.dll” has type “PE32 executable (DLL) (GUI) Intel 80386 for MS Windows”
“samlib.dll” has type “PE32 executable (DLL) (GUI) Intel 80386 for MS Windows”
“rbcon.ini” has type “ASCII text with CRLF line terminators”
Writes directory archive.rar (exfil)
Connects and downloads second stage: GET http://wallejob.in.ua/wd.php?sn=2120161230091201&rb=7&ob=R_pol_x&bt=0 HTTP/1.1
descr: Domain registered for customer of Ukraine.com.ua
status: OK-UNTIL 20170619000000
changed: firstname.lastname@example.org 20160907200219
Found malicious artifacts related to “184.108.40.206” (ASN: , Owner: ): …
URL: http://wood-house.com.ua/ (AV positives: 2/68 scanned on 12/27/2016 16:55:43)
URL: http://wallejob.in.ua/ (AV positives: 5/68 scanned on 11/17/2016 02:10:28) <—GROUNDBAIT C2
URL: http://zarabatak.ru/ (AV positives: 1/68 scanned on 07/20/2016 10:59:29)
URL: http://psh.co.ua/ (AV positives: 1/68 scanned on 07/14/2016 04:35:37)
URL: http://sem-dev.co.ua/ (AV positives: 1/68 scanned on 07/14/2016 04:33:23)
created: 2014-11-07 13:31:27+02
modified: 2016-11-03 16:37:39+02
expires: 2017-11-07 13:31:27+02
organization: SE Rabotnov Volodymyr
organization-loc: ФОП Работнов Володимир Володимирович
person: Vladimir V Rabotnov
person-loc: Работнов Владимир Владимирович
e-mail: not published
address: not published
address-loc: not published
phone: not published
created: 2013-04-05 15:01:02+03
modified: 2014-01-08 23:42:17+02
TYING IT ALL TOGETHER:
So what we have here is the insider’s view of how dnr-online, a propaganda wing within Ukraine’s Donetsk People’s Republic put together a media service(s) and planned to use them as a framework of Russian propaganda in the region. We also have malware that is known to be actual spycraft in the region within it’s mail spool being passed around at least to two sources inside, one of them being the director of the DNR company. Was that malware meant to infect and eventually allow for the dump in the darknet or was the malware being passed along for other uses that we cannot see in this spool dump? In either case this information makes it clear that in Ukraine the Russian propaganda and espionage machines are alive and well and using the net as a force multiplier at the very least.
I will continue looking at the growing dumps by RUH8 and let you all know about any malware and goodies that pop up. It is also of interest to you all that this dump has been around and certain groups have looked at it and just sort of said “Nothing to see here” which is interesting to me. I mean malware that no one has seen really and plans for propaganda in the region are of no interest? I guess maybe these groups just did not want to spent the cycles on looking deeper into the data. I actually did with the help of others as well as checked the forensics on the metadata to insure the stuff was real.
…but that’s just me… I am not a churnalist.
More when I have it.
UPDATE!: One day after this report one IP address involved as a nexus of malware has changed it’s domain name! Coincidence? Hmmmm?