The Ukraine invasion is maddeningly hard to process. Even as we remain in a global pandemic, an unstable autocrat who brags about possessing nuclear weapons is disregarding many of the laws and norms established in geopolitics over the last 75 years.
This is the first hot war between major developed countries since the world became digitally interconnected. And because of that, it could take directions that are truly unprecedented. The tank and missile attacks on Ukraine are terrifying and truly dangerous, but they are in many ways anachronistic. Other powerful and subtle weapons, digital ones, now exist that can disrupt and destabilize societies.
A global cyberwar could quite possibly begin. Russia, the world’s worst haven of cyber-criminality and a country with extensive digital expertise, has proven prone to lashing out in the digital realm. It can be expected to do so more, as it gets increasingly besieged by the world’s reaction to its ill-considered invasion. It’s already happening to the people of Ukraine (additional reports here). And the U.S. and allies will inevitably take advantage of our own vast capabilities to disrupt and alter communications systems, as we seek to find ways to push back against Russia’s aggression, yet avoid full-scale physical war.
The outcome of such hidden digital warfare is extremely difficult to predict, especially if it escalates. Some analysts say the U.S. and Russia may be restrained, at least at first, in using cyberweapons to expand the conflict by directly attacking one another. But this NBC News report says Biden has already been presented with multiple options for cyber-attacks against Russia that would impair its ability to continue waging war against Ukraine, including “disrupting internet connectivity across Russia, shutting off electric power, and tampering with railroad switches to hamper Russia’s ability to resupply its forces.”
If Russian aggression in Ukraine continues, or gets worse, U.S. cyberattacks could conceivably go further and, for example, shut down all of Russia’s pipelines. These kinds of capabilities are available to sophisticated cyber adversaries.
We really have never seen the full potential of the weaponization of the cyber realm, but with a digitally-sophisticated nation like Russia led by a heedless risktaker, it could get quite bad. Russia could also cause major disruption to our own national infrastructure. Could it, for example, attack the US banking system?
We already saw the largest fuel pipeline in the U.S., Colonial Pipeline, shut down for days last year by a ransomware attack conducted by cybercriminals based in Russia. They and the many others in Russia like them will take orders from Putin if necessary. One of the other most damaging recent cyberattacks last year was likely managed by the Russian intelligence services. It corrupted and took over software systems made by the company Solar Winds that were installed on hundreds of corporate and U.S. government networks. The assault may even have been a deliberate shot over the bow intended to warn the West of how bad things could get if it entered an ongoing cyberwar.
The Russian attack on Ukraine is a consequence of a destabilized world. But that destabilization has partly been created by the weaponization of the cyber realm, which also includes the tools of digital disinformation. Putin weaponized Facebook to help Trump get elected and Brexit to pass. Those two events helped bring us to this moment. And there have been many other recent deliberate degradations of the digital world, caused by corrupt and dishonest governments and their leaders as well as others seeking to wreak havoc in their own interests.
It is a very sad time. But much of the action will not be on the ground in Ukraine, however awful that is. Much of it will be in the systems that flow around us and that we depend on all the time.