United States Intelligence and Defense officials have warned since Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion into Ukraine that cyberattacks on Western interests are a great possibility, yet, even with sanctions on Russia going on nearly one month, no such activities have taken place.
At the same time, that shouldn’t mean Americans or our European allies can relax. American senior officials have been fairly accurate at predicting most every next move that Putin has taken in his attack on Ukraine. Now, President Biden warns the American public that “there is evolving intelligence” showing that Russia is “exploring options for cyberattacks” against the West.
The idea of a cyberattack on American financial institutions, on American infrastructure, and the like has danced in the back of American minds since Putin’s invasion on February 24. President Biden and others warned of this possibility when economic sanctions were first announced against Russia.
CNN posits that Putin could set his Russian intelligence agencies – or even Russian criminal gangs – against critical American infrastructure, including hospitals, financial institutions, utilities, or even United States government departments. To do so is, to borrow a much-used phrase from U.S. senior officials, “a page right out of Putin’s playbook.”
On Monday, President Joe Biden provided a written statement warning the private sector to bolster up its online defenses against a possible cyberattack. The private sector owns much of what is considered “critical infrastructure” in the United States, and, to date, the private sector hasn’t always taken heed of warnings from the government in the past.
Biden also spoke to a Business Roundtable meeting in DC, where he addressed the issue: “The magnitude of Russia’s cyber capacity is fairly consequential, and it’s coming. He hasn’t used it yet, but it’s part of his playbook.”
The White House Deputy National Security Adviser for Cyber and Emerging Technology, Anne Neuberger, said that “preparatory activity” by Russia had been detected, which prompted the Biden Administration to host meetings with companies and sectors “vulnerable to cyberattacks.”
Because Biden’s announcements were somewhat cryptic – much is unknown to the public about exactly what the White House knows, but this isn’t uncommon – many Americans are increasingly anxious about the potential of a cyberattack. Of course, imaging the worst that could possibly happen is a result of vague warnings, but, it’s important to consider what could happen and how such as cyberattack would be handled by our government and critical infrastructure agencies.
First, let’s look at cyberattacks that have been attributed to Putin’s administration. In 2020, a Russian Foreign Intelligence Service was cited as the source of the SolarWinds attack, which affected both federal servers as well as many public sector servers. The cyberattack on the Colonial Pipeline last year in the southern United States was blamed on a Russian criminal group called “DarkSide.”
An annual Threat Assessment Report told of the possibility of underwater cables and industrial control systems becoming a target of future cyberattacks, according to intelligence gathered by the United States. While this might not seem as important as a cyberattack that involved financial systems, these types of attacks would show that Russia is capable of wreaking havoc on infrastructure “during a crisis.”
CNN also reported that Russia has already unleashed cyberattacks on Ukraine. Specifically, Putin’s government has targeted local banks as well as government agencies, but he has yet to carry out a cyberattack that caused major power outages or a poisoned water system. Most experts don’t believe that Putin’s cyber criminals are fully capable of unleashing such an attack on the United States; these experts also add that Putin likely realizes that the United States’ capabilities regarding technology and the internet are far superior to his own.
In the meantime, businesses in the private sector would do well to heed Biden’s warning, even if no threat ever presents itself. As Putin has proven time and again, he should never be dismissed when it comes to his regime and his agenda.