With the start of conventional warfare in the battle for control of Ukraine, many Americans wrongly assume that unless U.S. troops are deployed within the forces promised by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, this will be just another in the seemingly never-ending list of conflicts, wars, and skirmishes that may have little, if any, direct damaging effects on the United States.
We can certainly talk of the numerous economic implications of this war in eastern Europe. We can perhaps even argue that conflict may benefit the United States, as it might serve to provide a much-needed wakeup call to the Biden Administration that reversing the Trump-era energy policy and throwing hundreds of millions of dollars at an aggressive Russia only enabled this costly and destructive military endeavor.
Also enabling this brazen action from Russia is the weakness projected by yet another Democratic Party politician who has been forced to endure the indignity of having his red line ignored by a ruthless dictator.
As a result, this new war will certainly signify the permanent arrival of what will be the most common theater of war in the future—the cybersphere.
In the short time since Russian forces invaded Ukraine, there have been unrelenting waves of cyberattacks targeting the country. In addition, the weeks preceding the attacks saw Russian hackers target Western nations, as agencies including the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the FBI, and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) issued alerts warning U.S. organizations of looming Russian cyberattacks.
The U.S. intelligence community is well acquainted with the damaging potential of Russian-based cyberattacks, as just last spring, cyberattacks from Russia caused major supply chain disruptions in the food and energy sectors as a result of the JBS Foods and Colonial Pipeline hacks, respectively. Although extremely damaging, these attacks may pale in comparison to any wartime hacks that could materialize, especially when considering the information collected and backdoors obtained via the most wide-ranging reconnaissance cyberattack of all time—the SolarWinds Attack.
The SolarWinds attack targeted the thousands of users of the popular Orion software through a seemingly normal software update. The users were both private and public sector entities, including ones that manage critical American infrastructure.
But SolarWinds was really just one of many reconnaissance hacks carried out by Russian hackers, many of whom are considered state-sponsored “advanced persistent threats.” Russian hackers had previously attacked Ukraine with a similar attack in the 2015-2016 Petya/NotPetya hacking attacks that also saw victim’s systems become compromised through an innocuous-looking software update.
A major wildcard in our highly disturbing set of current circumstances is the recently announced enhanced partnership between Russia and fellow global hacking superpower, China. The new cooperation was created to challenge America as the world’s top superpower, as well as call into question NATO’s position as the “cornerstone of international security.”
A case can be made that the weakness projected by current White House occupant Joe Biden has ushered in new aggressiveness in the territorial ambitions of both Russia and China. Russia had long desired to reacquire Ukraine, while the Chinese have repeatedly threatened Taiwan in the months following Biden’s botched Afghanistan exit.
But as NATO forces assemble to address the Ukrainian situation, the new Sino-Russo partnership may initiate a series of cyberattacks that are more destructive than any in global history. China is considered by many experts to be the globe’s top offensive cyber power as a result of its exploits in the cybersphere over the past decade including the hacking of a U.S. Navy contractor working with the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Newport, Rhode Island. Additionally, 2015 saw NBC publish an NSA map disclosing “more than 600 corporate, private or government ‘Victims of Chinese Cyber Espionage’ that were attacked over a five-year period, with clusters in America’s industrial centers.”
This new alliance could potentially leverage the shared intelligence collected over the years and have a devastating impact on America and other Western countries from half a world away. This could possibly grow into a larger threat if the allies of this new alliance, cyber giants North Korea and Iran, get involved.
This Ukrainian drama is far from over, especially with Vladimir Putin ordering Russian nuclear forces to go on high alert in response to NATO statements on Sunday. Besides the threat of massive cyberattacks that are almost sure to come, this is probably the closest the world has been to a nuclear war since the dissolution of the Soviet Union.