Top US cyber officials warn against underestimating Russia’s cyber capability

U.S. Cyber Command Director Gen. Paul Nakasone on Wednesday challenged the prevailing narrative that Russia hasn’t launched destructive cyberattacks against Ukraine amid its military invasion.

Nakasone said his agency has observed a series of destructive attacks in Ukraine, on top of those that targeted the country’s satellite communications system in March.

“This idea that nothing has happened is not right,” Nakasone said on Wednesday during a summit hosted by Vanderbilt University on modern conflict and emerging threats.

“Over the past couple of weeks, we have had a much better feel for what’s happened in the Ukraine,” he said, adding that his agency has also remained vigilant against the current cyber threats facing the U.S. and its allies.

Nakasone was responding to a question raised by the summit moderator, David Owens, who asked why the Russians haven’t deployed their full cyber arsenal as many expected.

Experts and U.S. intelligence officials predicted that Russia would unleash massive and destructive cyberattacks against Ukraine and the West, especially after the crippling economic sanctions the U.S. and Europe imposed on the country. 

Some of those predictions have materialized with regard to Ukraine specifically. Since the invasion, the country has been the target of numerous cyberattacks and attempted hacks aimed at its key institutions and critical sectors. 

In a report released last week, Microsoft revealed that at least six Russian-backed hacking groups have launched more than 200 cyberattacks against Ukraine, including nearly 40 destructive attacks that targeted government agencies and critical infrastructure.

Rob Joyce, director of the cybersecurity directorate at the National Security Agency, agreed with Nakasone’s comments on Russia’s cyber efforts.

“I totally agree with [Nakasone] that there was some really astronomical cyber pressure brought to Ukraine and their networks by Russia in this, so don’t be dismissive,” said Joyce, who also spoke at the event.

He added that just because the Russians haven’t unleashed major cyberattacks against the U.S. doesn’t mean they’re not trying or don’t have the capability to do so.

Nakasone added that it will take some time to fully understand the extent to which the Russians have attempted to launch attacks on the U.S. and other countries.

“We’ll know more with passing years as information comes out,” he said.

Nakasone also noted the significant efforts and investments the Ukrainians have made to defend their country in cyberspace.

“The Ukrainians have done a tremendous job in terms of being able to have a resiliency, and we’re proud of that,” he said.

Ukraine’s success can also be partly attributed to the substantial cyber assistance — both financial and technical — that it received over the years from the U.S. and the European Union. 

A State Department official recently pointed to a $40 million contribution that the U.S. has made since 2017 to help Ukraine grow and enhance its information technology sector.

As part of the assistance, Nakasone said his agency also deployed a “hunt forward” team in December to help Ukraine shore up its cyber defenses and networks against active threats — as it has done for 16 countries in the past three years.

Nakasone’s colleague, Maj. Gen. William Hartman, spoke on the importance of forging strong foreign partnerships as a way to deter these ongoing cyber threats.

“Nation-states like Russia and China find themselves alone while so many like-minded countries are leveraging our collective strength to support ongoing operations in Ukraine,” Hartman said. 

“These partnerships are critical to defending the United States and are only going to become more important in the future,” he added.

Tags cyberattacks Paul Nakasone Russia-Ukraine war Russian hackers

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