Russia Could Unleash Disruptive Cyberattacks Against the U.S. – but Efforts to Sow Confusion and Division Are More Likely

Russian intelligence operatives are skilled at using technology, including amplifying misinformation through fake accounts on popular social media platforms. In effect, Russia uses social and other online media like a military-grade fog machine that confuses the U.S. population and encourages mistrust in the strength and validity of the U.S. government.

Repressive governments like those in Russia and China have perfected the manipulation of online information as a way to control their own populations. Democracies are especially vulnerable to these techniques, given the open exchange of ideas and lack of centralized control over sources of information.

In addition, U.S. society is polarized, and that polarization is occurring at an increasing rate. A study by researchers at the University of Oxford examined Russia’s computational propaganda against the U.S. between 2013 and 2018 and found that it was designed to boost U.S. political polarization.

Plausible Deniability
Though the Russian government commonly operates through its intelligence services, including the technical experts in the GRU military intelligence service and the spymasters in the FSB domestic intelligence service, it also uses criminal groups to achieve its aims.

History shows that Russia is most likely to recruit proxies to carry out cyberattacks that disrupt decision-making so that the attacks don’t point directly back to the Kremlin. There is no foggier battlefield than cyberspace. That is one of the main benefits of cyberspace as an element of national power – a cyberattack almost always allows for plausible deniability.

On Jan. 14, 2022, Russia arrested members of the Russian-based cyber gang REvil who were responsible for the 2021 ransomware attacks against meat supplier JBS Foods, headquartered in Greeley, Colorado, and the Colonial Pipeline, headquartered in Alpharetta, Georgia. The unusual move caused cybersecurity analysts to wonder about Russia’s motive, including speculation about making it easier for the government to deny a connection to the cyberattacks.

U.S. Cyber Defenses
National cyber defense is inherently challenging, but the U.S. is far from defenseless. Several analysts have noted that the U.S. is the most capable cyber power in the world. The U.S. also has 20 years of experience dealing with Russian cyber aggression.

The Biden administration’s tough stance on Russian hacking has made some progress. And though disinformation is among the murkiest of cyber strategies, cybersecurity experts are making headway on that front, too.

Cause for Concern but No Reason to Fear
Cyber activity that creates room for Russia to present the seizure of Ukraine as a fait accompli is much more likely than a crippling cyberattack. Though Russia might temporarily deter a U.S. response to Russian moves in Ukraine by disrupting U.S. critical infrastructure, Americans are likely to present a unified and powerful response to such an overt attack. I believe Russia is more likely to prefer a path of insidious political polarization to weaken U.S. geopolitical influence.

Even if Russia were to launch extensive cyberattacks against the U.S., the average American is unlikely to be harmed. The disruption of natural gas and food supplies would clearly have a significant economic impact, but it is extremely rare for a cyberattack to lead to loss of life.

If you are worried about the situation in Ukraine and wondering what you can do to defend against Russian cyberattacks, I recommend tuning out divisive rhetoric and cultivating common ground with Americans whom you might not agree with. Though there are many issues U.S. society is working through, Americans can still try to find some general agreement in the principles of the American experiment.

Justin Pelletier is Professor of Practice of Computing Security, Rochester Institute of Technology. This article is published courtesy of The Conversation.