Russia could launch digital offensive against Ukraine, administration official warns
Martin Matishak December 6, 2021

Russia could launch digital offensive against Ukraine, administration official warns

Russia could launch digital offensive against Ukraine, administration official warns

Russia could opt to launch a sweeping cyber and disinformation campaign against Ukraine and its government rather than a traditional military invasion of the country, a senior Biden administration official said on Monday.

“Could the Russian government choose a different course here, one in which they rely more heavily on information operations, cyber and destabilization activities inside Ukraine? Yes, they certainly could do that,” the official told reporters. “That also has historically been part of the Russian playbook and could be part of the playbook going forward.”

President Joe Biden will speak to Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday. Biden is expected to use the video meeting to warn his counterpart not to invade Ukraine, which has been encircled by Russian ground forces along three of its borders. 

However, the session will also address other topics, including cybersecurity and comes as U.S. officials warn of a ramped up disinformation campaign against Kiev.

There has been a “significant spike in social media activity pushing anti-Ukrainian propaganda, which is approaching levels that we last saw in the lead up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014,” according to the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the upcoming call.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken made almost identical remarks last week, saying such efforts have increased “tenfold.”

Ukraine and other post-Soviet countries have become a testbed for Russian cyber activities in recent years. In December 2015, a digital attack left thousands of Ukrainians without power for hours amid freezing temperatures. Last year officials lamented that such strikes have become a facet of daily life.

Tuesday’s call will be the first time Biden and Putin have spoken since July. 

When the two met face-to-face in Geneva in June, Biden presented Putin with a list of critical infrastructure and said such entities were “off-limits” to cyberattacks. He also publicly vowed that if they were struck by Russian-based cybercriminals, the U.S. would respond.

The two countries have created an experts group on cybersecurity where administration officials have provided the Kremlin with information about particular cyber criminals and conveyed what actions Washington expects the government to take against them.

But since then senior officials across the government have publicly said they have seen no evidence of any change in Russian behavior and raised doubts that the Kremlin could, or would, act against digital gangs.

U.S. Cyber Command chief Gen. Paul Nakasone this weekend publicly acknowledged for the first time that the military has taken offensive action against ransomware groups.

“Before, during and since, with a number of elements of our government, we have taken actions and we have imposed costs,” Nakasone told The New York Times in an interview.

Martin is a senior cybersecurity reporter for The Record. He spent the last five years at Politico, where he covered Congress, the Pentagon and the U.S. intelligence community and was a driving force behind the publication's cybersecurity newsletter.