Russia has warned that cyberattacks on its infrastructure from the US and other allies of Ukraine may lead to a “direct military clash with unpredictable consequences”. The US has admitted carrying out “offensive cyber operations” as part of its support for Ukraine in the war with Russia, and threats from the Kremlin are unlikely to put a stop to this.
In a press conference yesterday, A.V. Krutskikh, director of the Department of International Information Security at Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said it was “alarming” that Washington appears to be “directly lowering the threshold” for triggering offensive cyberattacks.
Russia’s online infrastructure has been consistently targeted by hackers throughout the Ukraine conflict, and earlier the website of its Ministry of Construction, Housing and Utilities was knocked offline and replaced with a message reading “Glory to Ukraine”.
The US has recently admitted to ramping up its offensive cyber operations. General Paul Nakasone, head of US National Security Agency (NSA), described these operations as “lawful, conducted with complete civilian oversight of the military and through policy decided at the Department of Defence”.
US cyberattacks on Russia heavier than expected
The degree to which the US and others have been prepared to launch cyberattacks against Russia during the Ukraine conflict has come as a surprise, says Greg Austin, programme lead in Cyber Space and Future Conflict at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “We are definitely seeing a heavier emphasis on engagement in cyberspace than we imagined at the start of the current phase of the war,” he says.
Russia calling out the US for its cyber activities is ironic, Austin says, given that hackers backed by Vladimir Putin’s government have regularly targeted companies and public sector organisations in the West in recent years. “Generally, the country doing most of the attacking has been Russia. So for Russia to say that the US is militarising cyberspace is the pot calling the kettle black,” Austin says.
China has also released a statement regarding the US’s increasingly aggressive stance in cyberspace. Earlier this week, Zhao Lijian, from China’s ministry of foreign affairs, said US operations “could lead to an escalation in the Russia-Ukraine conflict and even risk triggering nuclear war”.
“It is quite obvious that the US is conducting a dangerous experiment in the context of the Russia-Ukraine conflict,” he added. “The US believes that with an unrivalled cyber military force it is able to keep any scenarios ensuing a cyber attack under its control. However, if the situation gets out of hand, it will end up harming the common interests of the international community.”
Hacktivism in the Ukraine conflict is risky
Krutskikh’s statement also touched on the impact hacktivists – politically motivated hackers – have had on Russian infrastructure. He said hacktivists from several countries are launching distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks to disable targets in Russia.
“As of May 2022, over 65,000 ‘sofa hackers’ from the USA, Turkey, Georgia, and EU countries regularly took part in coordinated DDoS attacks on our country’s critical information infrastructure, including Rutube video hosting,” Krutskikh said. “In total, 22 hacker groups are involved in illegal operations against Russia.”
The minister went on to say that the US has encouraged such attacks, though publicly it has taken the opposite stance. At the CyberUK conference in Newport in May, the NSA’s cybersecurity director Rob Joyce said that hacktivism could prove “problematic” in the Ukraine war due to the unpredictable consequences of their actions, although he added hacktivists were mainly “trying to do noble things”.
However, while this so-called ‘sofa hacktivism’ is provocative, the impact of attacks instigated by the US is likely to be far greater, Austin says. “I think it’s there’s a small element of risk there, but I think that the United States and its allies are in a far stronger position in cyberspace than Russia.”
Austin believes the warnings from Russia will not stop the US from continuing its cyber offensive. “The Americans are already engaged in defence-forward operations,” he says. “Now that they’ve become much more robust towards Russia and their policy is to weaken Russia, it would not surprise me that they would move up a significant gear in terms of operations in cyberspace.”