US and UK prepare for Russian cyber war
The Russians are coming
The United States and Britain have quietly sent cyber warfare experts to Ukraine in hopes of better preparing the country for what they believe is Russian President Vladimir V. Putin’s next move as he once again threatens the former Soviet republic.
The idea is that he will not invade with the 175,000 troops he is assembling at the border, but will bring the country to its knees with cyberattacks on the electricity grid, banking system and other essential elements of the Ukrainian economy and government.
Russia’s goal, according to U.S. intelligence assessments, is to make Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky look inept and helpless – and provide an excuse for an invasion.
Russia did all of this in the dying days of 2015, with the lights going out in part of Ukraine as Russian hackers remotely seized the control center of a utility utility and turned it off one power station after another, as company operators stared helplessly at their screens. The following year, the same thing happened, this time around the capital Kiev.
Russian cyber activity was discussed by around a dozen officials, who requested anonymity because the information came from classified intelligence and sensitive discussions on how to mitigate the Russian threat.
Those conversations focused on whether Putin thinks a paralysis of Ukraine’s infrastructure might be his best hope of achieving his main goal: to overthrow the Ukrainian government and replace it with a puppet leader.
The math, a senior intelligence official said, would be that such an attack wouldn’t force him to occupy the country – or face as many sanctions that would certainly follow a physical invasion.
Putin has worked to strengthen his support nationally, in Africa, South America and Central America.
Russian-led information campaigns have focused on smearing the Ukrainian government and accusing its leader of creating a humanitarian crisis in the east of the country, where Ukrainian government forces are fighting separatists led by Russia for years.
US officials declined to describe the cyber teams that have been inserted in Ukraine. In a statement, the Biden administration only said that “we have long supported Ukraine’s efforts to strengthen its cyber defenses and increase its cyber resilience.”
A British government spokeswoman said the aid provided by Britain and its allies was defensive in nature. Although neither of the governments provided details, officials said the United States was considering a larger deployment, including resources from US Cyber Command. But it’s unclear how much a bigger team could do beyond showing their support.