US braces for Russian cyberattacks as Ukraine conflict escalates. Here’s how that might play out

The standoff between the United States and Russia over the conflict in Ukraine has so far mainly played out on diplomatic and economic fronts.

But now, as Russia invades Ukraine and the United States imposes new sanctions on Russia, there are concerns that may change. The US government is on high alert for the possibility of the conflict spilling over into cyberspace, where Russia has shown an ability to cause significant disruption and damage in the past.

On Tuesday, a senior FBI cyber official warned US businesses and local governments that they should be vigilant against potential ransomware attacks, just days after multiple US agencies issued a similar warning to executives at major US banks, according to people with knowledge of both meetings.

If the recent past is any indication, there are a number of ways Russian hackers could disrupt US businesses and the general public.

Precedent for Russian cyberattacks

Some of the biggest cyberattacks against US infrastructure in the past two years have been linked to suspected Russian hackers.

The list includes the SolarWinds hack that infiltrated several government agencies in 2020, the ransomware attack that forced a shutdown of one of America’s largest fuel pipelines for several days last year and another attack on one of the world’s largest meat producers JBS. 

Russia has also been repeatedly accused of perpetrating online disinformation campaigns targeting the United States, including, most notably, efforts to interfere with US elections and sow discord. US officials this week also accused Russian intelligence of spreading disinformation about Ukraine

While many online attacks can’t directly be linked to the Russian state, there’s a widespread belief that hackers operate with Russia’s blessing, according to Herb Lin, a senior research scholar for cyber policy and security at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation.

“They don’t operate directly for the Russian government, but they operate under a set of rules that says: ‘you guys do what you want… don’t target Russian stuff and we won’t bother you,'” Lin told CNN Business.

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