The world stood at attention this week when Russian forces began invading Ukraine. Not since the early months of the COVID pandemic has such an event gripped news agencies and eyes across the globe. Thousands of Ukrainians have begun fleeing cities, trying to seek refuge in neighboring countries, while just as many are staying behind to fight for their homes.
The U.S. and NATO have promised harsh sanctions against Russia, while Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned other countries that interference would be met with “consequences you have never seen.”
Security experts believe Putin’s threats are more a reference to cyberattacks than nuclear opposition. While somewhat less worrisome than a nuclear warhead hurtling towards innocents, a cyberattack could still cause total chaos.
What does a Russian cyberattack on the United States look like?
While the Department of Homeland Security has said there is “no specific cyberattack” from Russia currently underway, it did encourage companies and state governments to keep their guard up. As for what a cyberattack would be – most likely some form of ransomware, reports Fast Company. A ransomware attack last year was launched against the Colonial Pipeline and led to gas shortages, however, it was launched by a group of hackers determined to make money, rather than Russian government operatives.
With just about all infrastructure from our electrical grid to telecommunications now online, Russia could do serious damage. Banking systems could be seriously disrupted and emergency services could be crippled if Russia launched a serious enough cyberattack.
What is also unclear is what interferences from the U.S. would trigger such an attack. Putin didn’t exactly hand out a list of specific things that would tick him off. Russia’s use of propaganda on social media has been well-documented since the 2016 presidential election, so it’s clear that cyberwarfare isn’t off the table.
What does a U.S. cyberattack on Russia look like?
While Russia is certainly what Yahoo Finance calls a “formidable opponent,” the United States is no slouch when it comes to cyber artillery. One somewhat recent example is the U.S. crippling of an Iranian uranium enrichment facility in 2010 with a computer worm known as Stuxnet.
Should the U.S. launch an attack against Russia, experts say it will probably be a targeted attack, rather than something that would cause civilians to break down into a panic. Something along the lines of hitting a military operational system rather than knocking out all electricity in Moscow. “We might be more inclined to be more careful about that and to not do it, because it… might have civilian casualties,” Herbert Lin, senior research scholar for cyber policy and security at the Stanford University Center for International Security and Cooperation, told Yahoo Finance. (Y’know, cuz we’re the good guys.)
One aspect that Lin said he’s fairly confident in is that Russia doesn’t have some secret cyber weapon hidden up its sleeve. “It would be surprising if the Russians had a capability that we didn’t have,” Lin said. “By capability, I mean something that they could deploy, that we couldn’t do. That would be a surprise.”
Both the U.S. and Russia of course, have cybersecurity guards in place to ward off attacks, but no cybersecurity is ever 100% bulletproof. Cybersecurity code is written by humans and as everyone knows, humans are fallible – no matter the century or the means of warfare.