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Cyberthreats Accompany Buildup of Russian Troops Near Ukraine

January 27, 2022 by Tom Ramstack
Cyberthreats Accompany Buildup of Russian Troops Near Ukraine
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at the annual meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club via video conference at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia. (Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration will not rule out risks of major cyberattacks against U.S. targets as it continues its political support for Ukraine amid rumblings of war with Russia.

White House press spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Tuesday the U.S. government is monitoring the threats.

In addition, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security sent a bulletin this week to law enforcement agencies warning them to prepare for possible attacks.

“Russia maintains a range of offensive cyber tools that it could employ against U.S. networks — from low-level denials of service to destructive attacks targeting critical infrastructure,” the bulletin says.

President Joe Biden said last week the United States would consider retaliatory cyberattacks if the Russians launch them against the United States.

The cyberthreat warnings coincide with tough talk renewed Wednesday by Russian officials of “retaliatory measures” if the United States and western European nations continue their military backing for Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is angered by Ukrainian officials’ suggestions they would like to become a NATO ally. Putin says the alliance would threaten Russia’s national security, thereby justifying its movement of 127,000 troops to the Ukrainian border.

The heated rhetoric prompted Biden to authorize more munitions to be sent to the Ukrainian army this week. He also is assuring European allies the United States would guarantee their energy needs if Russia cuts off their supplies of natural gas and oil.

The Homeland Security bulletin stopped short of saying a threat is imminent, only that government officials should be vigilant if political tensions escalate.

“[W]e have not observed Moscow directly employ these types of cyberattacks against U.S. critical infrastructure — notwithstanding cyber espionage and potential prepositioning operations in the past,” the bulletin says.

The agency also has cautioned banks and energy companies to be prepared.

Psaki made similar comments during a White House press briefing Tuesday when a reporter asked about the risks of a Russian cyberattack.

“Broadly, we are always preparing for any — any action that’s related to cyber or any other activity that any country could take,” Psaki said.

Some members of Congress are raising greater alarms based on recent cyberattacks in Ukraine suspected to be of Russian origin.

“I am concerned that Russia has been using Ukraine as a sort of testing ground for its cyber capabilities,” Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said during a CNN interview this week. He is chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

“For years, I’ve been making the case that we need rules of the road in cyberspace, just like we have defined norms around armed conflict,” Warner said. “We need to ensure that the Kremlin knows that if they were to use destructive cyberattacks against the United States, there would be serious consequences.”

Russian hackers are accused of shutting down part of the Ukrainian electrical grid in 2015 and 2016 and infecting several of the country’s organizations with a malware called NotPetya in 2017. The malware caused billions of dollars of damage as it spread worldwide.

The U.S. Justice Department says Russia’s GRU military intelligence agency launched all three of the attacks.

This month, Ukrainian agencies were hit by attacks that replaced the normal text on government websites with threatening messages. A separate attack deleted data from 20 agency computer servers and workstations.

Biden’s list of sanctions if the Russians invade Ukraine or launch cyberattacks anywhere else include a pledge to cut off trade between its technology firms and NATO countries.

Tom can be reached at tom@thewellnews.com

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