The mass of Russian troops on the border of Ukraine has prompted fears of armed conflict, but intelligence experts believe that hostilities may be limited to a campaign of cyber attacks.
Russia has pursued an ongoing strategy of undermining the Ukrainian government, which has allied itself with the West and seeks to join NATO. This has included temporarily taking out portions of the electric grid via cyber attacks. Experts believe that Russia will become more aggressive with these moves as the year begins, potentially escalating to attacks on other public utilities, banking services and private businesses.
US and UK intelligence see Russia relying on cyber attacks to pressure Ukraine
Under the assumption that Russia is ramping up for a campaign of cyber attacks, the Biden administration and UK counterpart Boris Johnson have sent cyber operations experts to assist the Ukrainian government. Russia would be at great risk if it attacked Ukraine with conventional weapons, but can essentially engage in digital incursions at will without much of a chance of geopolitical backlash.
This would not be a new development, but simply an escalation of the existing state of affairs. Russia has been engaging in regular cyber attacks against Ukraine since 2014, when ongoing tensions between the two countries began to boil over into the present situation.
Russia has previously attacked Ukraine’s electrical grid, in both 2015 and 2016. The 2015 attack turned off power at multiple utility stations during the Christmas holiday period. Russia’s cyber attacks are focused on the power grid in no small part because the country’s hacker groups are intimately familiar with them; the system was built while both countries were still part of the Soviet Union, and Ukraine’s grid relies on Russian parts to stay up and running.
Anticipating Russia’s moves
Russia’s cyber attack strategy will likely be dictated by the Putin administration’s intentions. Putin’s ideal goal is a Ukraine government that takes its orders from him, but the administration may be willing to settle for less. It may plan to annex more territory (as it did with Crimea in 2014), or merely to stop Ukraine from joining NATO and push it away from some of its Western ties.
The ongoing campaign of cyber attacks is meant to make the Ukraine government look incompetent and sow popular domestic support for a more Russia-friendly political party. This seems a more feasible and low-risk high-reward strategy for Russia, which risks major sanctions and even the possibility of war with Ukraine’s allies if it engages in a physical invasion. While no one involved in the situation is in a hurry to get into a hot war, the Biden administration and other European countries could provide Ukraine with enough military aid to do serious damage to the Russian army without putting boots on the ground.
Talks between the US and Russia are ongoing. In the event of serious cyber attacks, the US and UK advisors will likely act only in a defensive capacity.