Here’s what a US cyberattack on Russia would look like

·4 min read

As the U.S. and its allies impose punishing sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, government agencies and businesses may face retaliatory cyberattacks.

Russia is a formidable opponent in the cyberwarfare space, as evidenced by its ability to disrupt Ukraine’s power grid in 2015 and 2016. Still, the U.S. has just as much firepower. Need proof? Look no further than the American and Israeli computer worm known as Stuxnet that took out an Iranian uranium enrichment facility in 2010.

Then there are the vast troves of U.S. cyberweapons exposed by the mysterious group known as the Shadow Brokers in 2016 that showed how the U.S. could hack computer systems around the world with ease.

Still, experts say if the U.S. launches a cyberattack against Russia it will be a targeted attack meant to prevent a full-scale panic among everyday civilians. Think less about targeting power grids, and more targeting individual Russian governmental and military systems.

“I could imagine, and I’m speculating here, that the Russians might be less hesitant to go after an electric grid because it might cause 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.

“We might be more inclined to be more careful about that and to not do it, because it…might have civilian casualties.”

Russia and the U.S. are largely on equal footing

The U.S. has some of the world’s most sophisticated cyberweapons. It demonstrated that with Stuxnet, one of the first ever cyberweapons, as well as its ability to eavesdrop on people using microphones built into smartphones and similar devices.

While Russia has been conducting cyberattacks against the U.S. for years, the U.S. has been doing the same to Russia.

“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.”

President Joe Biden speaks as he announces Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson as his nominee to the Supreme Court in the Cross Hall of the White House, Friday, Feb. 25, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
The U.S. could launch targeted cyberattacks against Russia. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Take for instance, the U.S.’s attack on Russia’s power plants in 2019. According to The New York Times, America injected malware into portions of Russia’s grid with the purpose of both pushing back against Russia’s own aggressive hacking of U.S. plants, and as a potential future weapon should war break out between the countries.

It’s unlikely the U.S. will ever use those weapons, though, as they serve as more of a deterrent against a physical Russian attack. Think of it as the kind of mutually assured destruction that stops countries from using nuclear weapons.

That kind of weapon, however, would escalate the ongoing tit-for-tat cyber espionage game the U.S. and Russians have been engaged in for years. It could also have powerful real-world consequences such as thee deaths of civilians.

That would also open both countries up to retaliatory attacks. And while the U.S. and Russia have dangerous cyberweapons, they’re also incredibly vulnerable to cyberattacks.

Sure, the U.S. and Russia have cybersecurity protections in place, but no form of cybersecurity is absolute. That’s because the people who write computer code, including security software, are fallible and can unknowingly introduce errors into it. Hackers then use those flaws to break into computer systems.

Cyberattacks don’t exist in a vacuum

But what if the U.S. did launch a powerful cyber attack against Russia? How would that look? According to Melissa Griffith, a senior program associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars’ Science and technology Innovation Program, it might not be what you’d expect.

“What we're seeing front and center in Ukraine is that Ukraine is facing very specific cyber operations relative to an invasion or leading up to an invasion.”

In other words, if the U.S. and Russia were to go to war, the U.S. would use cyberweapons to confuse and distract the Russian military and government.

According to Griffith, the U.S. will continue to see the same kind of cyberattacks that we’ve encountered from Russia in the past: espionage and counterintelligence operations.The U.S. will, naturally, keep doing the same to Russia.

A massive, flashy cyberattack, though, is unlikely from either side, unless it’s done in an attempt to create a larger conflict. And, hopefully, no one wants that.

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