For some time now Americans have been hearing warnings of impending Russian cyberattacks that could cripple the nation’s infrastructure. Just how likely are they, and how damaging could they be? Jack Detsch reports at Foreign Policy:
But experts believe that Russia doesn’t have to use digital attacks that harm physical infrastructure in the United States and elsewhere to cause problems. Biasini said that Russia had learned from the Colonial pipeline attack that it could cause chaos by simply hacking into the enterprise software that underlies energy companies, instead of taking more destructive and sophisticated cyberattacks that render equipment inoperable.
There are also public signals that Russian hackers could put U.S. energy companies in the crosshairs. The U.S. warnings come as pro-Kremlin propaganda channels and news outlets have ridiculed the Biden administration’s assertion that Russian President Vladimir Putin is responsible for higher global gas prices because of the wider invasion of Ukraine.
Both the United States and the United Kingdom have barred imports of Russian oil and natural gas, and major European states such as Germany—which already shelved the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project over the invasion—have promised to begin the arduous process of weaning themselves off of Russian energy, which accounts for more than 40 percent of European gas imports.
“It’s kind of paradoxical,” said Gavin Wilde, a nonresident fellow at Defense Priorities and an expert on Russia and information warfare who previously served as a director for Russia, Baltic, and Caucasus affairs on the U.S. National Security Council. “The more isolated Russia is on the global stage, the fewer constraints it may feel to act in cyberspace.”
Experts said that the higher energy prices go, the more difficult it could become for the United States to keep antsy European capitals in line with crushing sanctions on the Russians. “Now, I think, would be a good time from the Russian standpoint to do it, given that they’re sort of getting into a standstill on the ground in Ukraine,” said Dmitri Alperovitch, a cybersecurity expert at the Silverado Policy Accelerator. “They can refocus their attention on the West and try to divide the Europeans from the U.S. on these sanctions moves.”
But even though American energy and financial companies have been girding themselves for a range of possible Russian cyberscenarios, the Kremlin’s well-honed capability and determination to render U.S. networks inoperable could make it a formidable adversary, even for the best-defended firms. “If the Russians focus their efforts on a target and they want to compromise that target and destroy it, they’ll be able to do so,” Alperovitch said.
These aren’t garden-variety smash-and-grab cybercrime attacks that U.S. officials and experts are expecting from Russia this time. Russia tends to blur the line between criminal gangs and government-backed hackers, experts said, making it difficult to determine exactly what the Kremlin will order. “You’re dealing with an adversary that’s in a very difficult mindset and one that’s shifting all the time,” said Biasini, the Cisco expert. “So it’s something that may be on the table today [but] might be off the table tomorrow and vice versa.” In the past, Russia has also drawn on privateers and activists motivated by financial gains.
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