Russia’s cyber forces ‘underperformed expectations’ in Ukraine: senior US official

By drafting a new United Nations cybercrime treaty, Russia and China seek to legitimize authoritarian internet control and undermine digital human rights.

A senior cyber official at the Department of Defense said on Wednesday that Russian forces “underperformed expectations” in both the cyber and military space, as the West fears the Kremlin would unleash destructive cyberattacks against Ukraine as part of its invasion.

Mieke Eoyang, deputy assistant secretary of defense for cyber policy at the Department of Defense, said there were a lot of assumptions that Russia would effectively carry out massive cyberattacks against Ukraine, given its prior history.

“I think we were expecting much more significant impacts than what we saw,” Eoyang said.

“I think it’s safe to say that Russian cyber forces as well as their traditional military forces underperformed expectations,” she added.

Eoyang made her remarks at an annual cyber summit in New York hosted by the Aspen Institute, during a session that focused on the cyber lessons learned from the war in Ukraine.

Eoyang said some of that underperformance from the Russians could be tied to their underestimation of how long it takes to prepare for cyber operations and cyberattacks prior to a war.

Eoyang noted that there was increased Russian cyber activity in the first week of the invasion which dwindled in the second week, but then picked up again in the following weeks.

“What you see in the data is the fact that Russia was not prepared for the conflict to go on as long as it did,” she said.

U.S. lawmakers and intelligence officials did indeed have higher expectations of how the Russians were going to perform both militarily and in the cyber realm. Many predicted that Russian forces would launch destructive cyberattacks against Ukraine and the West in retaliation for the crippling economic sanctions imposed on the country. 

In March, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he was surprised that Russia hadn’t launched its full cyber capabilities that it’s known for.  

“I am still relatively amazed that they have not really launched the level of maliciousness that their cyber arsenal includes,” Warner said.

However, some experts said that Russia’s limited success in cyberspace could also be the result of Ukraine’s enhanced cyber defenses, making it difficult for the Russians to attack effectively. 

Ukraine has strengthened its cyber defenses over the years following two separate destructive Russian cyberattacks in 2015 and 2017 that targeted its power grid and key institutions. The former soviet nation has also had significant cyber assistance — both financial and technical — from the U.S. and the European Union.

Still, Russia has engaged in numerous cyber activities during the war, including cyberattacks, disinformation campaigns and cyber espionage. 

In April, Microsoft released a report that showed the extent of Russian cyber operations in Ukraine. The report found that Russian-backed hackers launched more than 200 cyberattacks against Ukraine, including nearly 40 destructive ones that targeted the country’s government organizations and critical sectors.

The Microsoft report also found that the cyberattacks were strongly tied and sometimes directly timed with the kinetic military operations on the ground targeting Ukrainian services and institutions.

Experts previously told The Hill that cyberattacks will increasingly become a weapon of war and will likely be used in conjunction with conventional warfare, rather than replacing it.  

Tags cyberattacks cybersecurity Mark Warner Mieke Eoyang Russia-Ukraine war
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