Top Russian Submarine Design Bureau Hit By Cyber Attack With Chinese Characteristics

Russia’s Rubin Design Bureau was the target of a cyber attack involving an image file with malicious software embedded inside it via a specific tool that has become a hallmark of multiple entities linked to the Chinese government. The file could have been used to create a backdoor into the networks at Rubin, a prolific designer of submarines and other underwater platforms. Its portfolio includes the ultra-quiet Borei class ballistic missile submarine, the unique Belgorod and Losharik special missions submarines, and the Poseidon nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed ultra-long-range ‘doomsday’ torpedo, among other work.

Cybersecurity firm Cybereason first reported on the attack on April 30, 2021, but it’s unclear when it was actually carried out. Metadata that the company provided along with its analysis says that the Rich Text Format (RTF) image in question was created in 2007, but the report says that this is almost certainly false and meant to help obfuscate its origins. Other portions of the metadata indicate that it was first accessed earlier in April, but that may just be when Cybereason first opened it up to assess it. It’s also not clear if the attack was successful in any way.

“The initial infection vector is a spear-phishing email addressed to the “respectful general director Igor Vladimirovich [Vilnit]” at the Rubin Design Bureau, a submarine design center from the ‘Gidropribor‘ concern in St. Petersburg, a national research center that designs underwater weapons like submarines,” Cybereason’s report says. “The email attachment is a malicious RTF document weaponized with a RoyalRoad payload, with content describing a general view of an autonomous underwater vehicle.”

A “spear-phishing” attack involves tricking an individual into opening a file, received via Email or some other source, that contains malicious software (malware). That malware then infects the target’s computer, and potentially other parts of any networks it is linked to, either carrying out certain malign tasks directly or providing a vector through which additional attacks can be carried out.

In this case, according to Cybereason, the attackers used a program called RoyalRoad to embed a separate file, winlog.wll, into the RTF image. That subfile would then have loaded a piece of malware, called Portdoor, onto the target computer when the TRF was opened.

Cybereason said that Portdoor was “a previously undocumented backdoor” and had “the ability to do reconnaissance, target profiling, delivery of additional payloads, privilege escalation, process manipulation static detection antivirus evasion, one-byte XOR encryption, AES-encrypted data exfiltration and more.” In short, it could have identified files of interest on the target computer, and potentially on networks it was linked to, and then paved the way for further attacks to either steal that information or carry out other malicious tasks.

The individuals who launched the cyber attack on Rubin are not identified in this report, which only says that the “previously undocumented backdoor [was] assessed to have been developed by a threat actor likely operating on behalf of Chinese state-sponsored interests. Beyond that, the RoyalRoad RTF “weaponizer” is a tool that has become very closely associated with Chinese government-linked entities, known by names like Goblin Panda, Rancor Group, TA428, Tick, and Tonto Team, according to Cybereason and other sources. 

The Chinese government is certainly well-known for engaging in industrial espionage, including via cyberattacks, against foreign companies to steal information about military and non-military projects, as well as systems that could have both military and civilian applications. However, public reports about such incidents more typically involve Western companies or major firms in East Asia, rather than those in Russia.

The attack on Rubin is particularly notable given China’s efforts to expand the overall size and capabilities of its submarine fleets, especially with the introduction of new, quieter, nuclear-powered ballistic and guided missile submarines. Though Russia’s own defense acquisition and modernization efforts are often limited by budgetary issues and other factors, the country still has a significant knowledge base when it comes to the development of advanced submarines, thanks to Rubin, as well as the Malakhit Design Bureau. That latter firm developed the Yasen and Yasen-M class super-quiet guided-missile submarines. The Russian Navy just recently received its first Yasen-M, the Kazan, and you can read more about both types here. Rubin’s website says that it, alone, has been responsible for the development of 85 percent of Soviet and Russian Navy submarines since 1901.

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