Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Is Russia holding back from cyber war?

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After three weeks of fighting, Russia is beginning to deploy increasingly brutal tactics in Ukraine, including indiscriminate shelling of cities and “medievalsiege warfare. However, other elements of its military strategy are conspicuously absent, including cyber warfare.

Russia has a history of employing cyberwarfare tactics, which some experts believed could contain was prominent in the invasion of Ukraine. However, the cyberattacks Russia has launched into the conflict so far have been relatively minimal and far less damaging than they could have been.

While Ukrainian government websites were targeted by distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks shortly before the invasion, e.g. a larger attack, possibly disabling Ukraine’s power grid or other important infrastructure, has not taken place.

“I think the biggest surprise so far has been the lack of success for Russia with cyber attacks on Ukraine,” Stephen Wertheim, a senior fellow with the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told cafemadrid. “This has not been a major part of the conflict.”

That is particularly strange, given that the threat of cyberwarfare from Russian entities was already a major concern for the West, even before the recent escalation of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. It was widely recognized that Russia may have significant cyberwarfare capabilities following successive cyberattacks against Ukraine following Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.

Notably, a few attacks in 2015 and 2016 cut power in parts of Ukraine, albeit on a relatively small scale. From that moment on, according to a Politico story from Februarythe United States and allies have tried to strengthen Ukraine’s power grid, but “no one thinks it will be enough”.

In 2017, Kremlin-linked hackers launched a different kind of cyberattack in Ukraine: a ransomware program known as NotPetya, which encrypted all data it reached, preventing the unsuspecting owner of the data from accessing their own files. Victims were told to pay a ransom of $300 in bitcoin if they wanted access to their data. But the ransomware attack spread beyond Ukraine’s borders, infecting corporate computer networks around the world. According to a former US official, the attack resulted in more than $10 billion in total damage and the NotPetya attack is now considered one of the worst cyberattacks in modern history.

The US has not been safe from such cyberattacks either. For example, in 2017, a group of cybercriminals based in Russia hacked in the IT network of Colonial Pipeline, a major oil pipeline system that carries gasoline and jet fuel to the southeastern US. The company was forced to pay a $5 million ransom in exchange for the extracted files.

Despite apparent vulnerabilities in Ukrainian and Western cyber defenses, more sweeping cyber-attacks have so far not been part of Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Why hasn’t Russia carried out any major cyber attacks yet?

The lack of large-scale Russian cyber-attacks is a phenomenon that has surprised some experts, including Wertheim.

“On some level,” he said, “the reason Russia launched a full-scale war against Ukraine is precisely because it didn’t think cyber assets were enough. But you would expect the war itself to bring more cyber operations.”

It’s hard to know exactly what’s behind Russia’s behavior, but experts have speculated about a number of possible reasons why Russia has been hesitant to launch stronger strikes. Some have theorized that Russia’s cyberwar capabilities may have been blown up, which is why it has so far launched a more sophisticated cyber-attack against Ukraine or its Western allies.

However, a more likely reason may be that Russia is still weighing its options carefully and simply waiting for the right time to act.

“Russia may fear reprisals that backfire on its case, at least for now,” Wertheim said, pointing to the relative lack of progress by Russia’s armed forces so far. “Perhaps if the Russian leaders believe that the situation has stabilized, Russia would be better able to withstand retaliation over time, then it could launch a cyber attack. It is possible.”

Given the setbacks Russia has faced on the battlefield, coupled with the remarkable resistance of Ukrainian troops who have stood firm against Russian attacks over the past three weeks, Wertheim said it could also be a matter of Russia prioritizing its military actions. .

“There may just be some kind of finite attention problem that works for [Russia],” he said.

A member of the Ukrainian Territorial Forces walks past destroyed Russian military vehicles in a forest outside Ukraine's second-largest city, Kharkov, on March 7, 2022.

A member of the Ukrainian Territorial Forces walks past destroyed Russian military vehicles in a forest outside Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkov, on March 7, 2022.
Sergey Bobok/AFP via Getty Images

According to Dr. Olena Lennon, an adjunct professor of political science and national security at the University of New Haven, the setbacks for Russia include the loss of junior, and even some higher levelcommanders among its military personnel, who may affect its operations on the ground.

“We’re definitely seeing some leadership flaws that could explain some of these surprises,” Lennon said.

The US could also be a target of Russian cyber-attacks

US authorities were already wary of a possible cyberattack by Russian hackers as a possible response to US aid to Ukraine. Those concerns have only increased after major sanctions imposed on Russia by Western powers, and following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s escalating rhetoric.

Putin described the sanctions as: “similar to declaration of war”, and Russian government officials have warned Russia will act quickly in response. US officials warned public and private entities of possible ransomware attacks after President Joe Biden announced the first sanctions against Russia late last month.

“DHS is conducting an outreach campaign to ensure partners in the public and private sectors are aware of evolving cybersecurity risks and are taking steps to increase their cybersecurity preparedness,” a DHS spokesperson said in a statement. statement to the press.

But the strong response to sanctions that Russian officials have warned has yet to materialize in the weeks to come. While it is certainly possible that Russia will respond to US sanctions in the future, according to Wertheim, it is remarkable that no action has been taken so far.

“It’s very difficult to assign exact probabilities to this kind of thing,” Wertheim said. “But it is remarkable that there has been no response. And I think it remains a real possibility that even if the West does nothing more to escalate into a conflict, Russia could do it by taking what it believes to be retaliation.”

That could be highly likely as the impact of the sanctions already imposed is increasing. Sanctions have had a huge effect on everyday life in the country: the value of the ruble, Russia’s official currency, has plummeted to less than 1 cent, and Russian citizens have already seen price increases, especially for electronic goods and devices. The early price hike has motivated many residents to stock up on items in case prices continue to rise as the conflict continues.

“The last few days have been like Christmas for us,” an employee of an electronics store told the Financial times† “People are even willing to buy things [though] we increased the prices every few hours based on the forex situation.

With heavy economic sanctions already in place, Wertheim says there are potential risks of pushing Putin further into a corner, which in itself could motivate Russia to take more drastic measures — including potentially cyber-attacks — as the war continues.

“What worries me most is a circumstance where Vladimir Putin thinks his regime is faltering and that he needs to do something dramatic to change the status quo to maintain his grip on power,” Wertheim said. “And so maybe his own personal survival.”


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