Joe Biden took Office in January in the wake of the SolarWinds attack, an unprecedented and potentially disastrous penetration of U.S. government computer systems by hackers believed to be directed by the Russian intelligence service, the SVR. The new American president promised to shore up the nation’s cyber defenses against foreign foes. As if on cue, hackers struck with two major ransomware attacks, closing the Colonial Pipeline, which provides about 100 million gallons of gas a day to the southeastern U.S., and halting production at all U.S. facilities of the world’s biggest beef producer, Brazil-based JBS. The events underscored the immense vulnerability of a trillion-dollar, internet-based economy for which security is an afterthought.
Most Americans seem to assume that a cyber attack, even by an avowed adversary like Russia or Iran, would be answered in kind—that the U.S. would cause an annoying power outage or a brief internet failure. But experts and former intelligence and cyber-security officials tell Newsweek that hackers linked to Russia have launched cyber attacks on the U.S. that have come frighteningly close to the red line: a digital incursion that would prompt a deadly real-life response.
As the U.S. continues to prove vulnerable to ransomware attacks from shadowy groups believed to be operating out of Russia or other former Soviet bloc countries, those with experience in advising the White House on challenges from the region urge Biden to take the opportunity to send a message.
“What I want is for Biden to very clearly explain what the risk is to Vladimir Putin, that we are not going to back down if we are attacked by Russia,” Evelyn Farkas, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, “and that we’re going to be the ones that decide what a ‘cyber Pearl Harbor’ is, which means Russia doesn’t control the escalation dynamic.”
At least Japanese leaders knew that bombing Pearl Harbor would inevitably provoke a military response. It’s not clear that Russia or the cyber-militants operating within its borders have that awareness now. A shooting war between Russia and the U.S. avoided for more than a half-century, would leave only losers. But cyber warfare is so new that there’s no agreed-upon, widely understood Rubicon, as was established during the Cold War with the use of traditional weapons of mass destruction. (Think: Cuban Missile Crisis. After that near-catastrophe, the two sides have played it safe.)
The lack of clarity—of a shared algorithm for escalation—is tinder that could easily turn into a deadly fire. In short, there’s a growing danger of a response far more devastating than the temporary internet outage or compromised credit score or muddled train schedule that Americans might think would be the worst-case scenario.
Russian President Vladimir Putin doesn’t directly run the hackers who’ve recently infiltrated high-level government networks and paralyzed critical infrastructure. U.S. intelligence believes the digital operatives behind those attacks work with the Russian president’s blessing but stay at arm’s length—the better to give Moscow plausible deniability. It’s part of a familiar pattern: Russian-affiliated groups have long harassed U.S. companies and government agencies and even had a hand in swinging the 2016 election to Donald Trump. The Biden administration has not directly accused the Kremlin of sponsoring these attacks but blames the Russians for allowing such activity to continue.
The recent attacks seem to mark an intensification. They tend to be more focused on physical infrastructure like food, oil and gas pipelines, and hospitals, upon which Americans rely every day for their health and economic well-being. The trend has national security analysts worried. It’s one thing to make Americans wait in line at the pump or to hit hospitals with ransom bills that drive up the cost of health care. It’s something else entirely to cause real economic harm and even loss of life. And yet, hackers seem to be flirting with crossing what national security experts say is a “red line.”
The red line was high on the agenda in the June 16 talks between Biden and Putin. Biden handed the Russian president a list of no-go targets upon which a cyber attack presumably might be considered an act of war that demands retaliation. Although it’s not clear where that red line is—the White House has not released the list—it’s not hard to imagine how easy it would be for hackers acting with some degree of autonomy from Moscow, and not directly answerable to the consequences of their actions, to cross it. To take one example, it’s become a truism in cyber-security circles that hackers working with the backing of the likes of Russia and China may have the ability to cause a shutdown of a large swath of the U.S. electrical grid, which could kill millions.
In other words, the next big cyber attack could trigger a war with Russia, and not the virtual kind, but one involving troops, tanks, missiles, aircraft carriers and possibly nuclear weapons. “If a nation-state adversary were to set foot on our homeland and physically destroy our infrastructure, we would view this as an act of war,” Brian Harrell, former Assistant Director for Infrastructure Security at the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), told Newsweek.
Russian-affiliated hackers have not crossed the red line yet, of course. But they’ve come close enough to keep national security experts wondering where the escalating trail of destruction might be heading, and how much control the Kremlin truly has over the hackers that do its bidding.
Drawing the Line
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