Russia escalates threats against West in response to cyberattacks

A local resident reacts in front of a destroyed school after a strike in the city of Bakhmut, eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas on June 8, 2022. (Photo by ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images)

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A Russian official threatened the West on Thursday, asserting that a “direct military clash” could result if Western governments continue to mount cyberattacks against its infrastructure.

“The militarization of the information space by the West and attempts to turn it into an arena of interstate confrontation, have greatly increased the threat of a direct military clash with unpredictable consequences,” the Russian foreign ministry’s head of international information security said Thursday in a statement first reported by Reuters.

Russia’s housing ministry website was hacked over the weekend with traffic to it redirecting to a “Glory to Ukraine” sign.

Reuters reported that the foreign ministry’s statement blamed figures in the United States and Ukraine for the attacks on its critical infrastructure.

“Rest assured, Russia will not leave aggressive actions unanswered,” the Russian statement said. “All our steps will be measured, targeted, in accordance with our legislation and international law.”

“Threats are just part of the Russian diplomatic vocabulary: They make them all the time and you can’t take them too seriously.”

James lewis, center for strategic and international studies

Cybersecurity and Russia experts said that while the threats sound sobering, they are typical of Russian bombast.

“Threats are just part of the Russian diplomatic vocabulary: They make them all the time and you can’t take them too seriously,” said James Lewis, the director of the strategic technologies program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “They threatened nuclear war, they threatened war with NATO, they threatened an invasion of Poland.”

Lewis said it is not surprising to see Russia intensifying its threatening language now, given that it hasn’t swiftly won its war against Ukraine as some expected.

The Russians likely feel “they have to escalate the threats because people kind of aren’t as afraid of Russia as they were, say, three months ago,” Lewis said.

On Monday Andrei Krutskikh, the top cyber expert at the Russian foreign ministry, told the Russian newspaper Kommersant that the United States had allegedly “unleashed cyber aggression against Russia and its allies.”

Krutskikh argued that Washington is leveraging Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s IT Army to “carry out computer attacks against our country as a battering ram.”

He told Kommersant that if the United States pushes Russia to retaliate, the outcome “could be catastrophic, because there will be no winners in a direct cyber clash of states.”

Krutskikh’s remarks appeared to be a response to Cyber Command and National Security Agency chief Gen. Paul Nakasone confirming offensive cyber operations against Russia, which the White House insisted didn’t violate President Joe Biden’s pledge not to use the military to attack Russia over Ukraine.

Russia sees itself as being stuck in a defensive crouch fending off attacks from the West, said Samuel Bendett, a Russia expert with the Center for Naval Analyses, a non-profit research and analysis organization focused on national security. He agreed with Lewis that the threats are neither surprising nor particularly worrying.

“Every year the Ministry of Defense and other key government enterprises do sort of a presentation on how much Russia is getting beaten in the cyber domain and how Russia is constantly under attack,” Bendett said. “They don’t see themselves as on the offensive here.”

Bendett said the tendency is part of a larger Russian posture, pointing to Russia justifying the invasion of Ukraine with defensive language about Ukraine becoming a Nazi state intending to place missiles near Moscow.

“Russia talks about cyberattacks in defensive terms,” Bendett said. “Russia isn’t the one that’s just randomly attacking countries. It’s actually defending itself from larger, more coordinated, more powerful attacks.”

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Center for Naval Analyses, CSIS, cyberwarfare, jim lewis, Russia, Ukraine
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