For some, it occurred when Russian tanks crossed the Ukrainian border after assurances that they were merely conducting training maneuvers. For some it occurred when Russian military deliberately targeted civilians. For some it was the shelling of a maternity hospital or a Mariupol theatre with дети displayed outside. For some it was the false flag setup for chemical weapon attack or the reckless shelling of nuclear facilities. Putin has crossed his Rubicon.
There is no going back for the Russian dictator now. No more tea and scones with Western leaders, no more hobnobbing with prime ministers or troop inspections with presidents. It’s finito. Never again will Western leaders want to be seen with the thug, the war criminal, the gangster head of a pariah terrorist State.
In less than a month, we have a whole new world order.
Harsh sanctions will soon have crushing effect on the Russian economy. I experienced economic sanctions during the 1970s and 1980s growing up in apartheid South Africa. Back then I watched as leaders of our pariah nation lied as they tried to sell the notion that sanctions would make the country self-sufficient and stronger. These same lies now circulate in Russia. Tough sanctions, particularly SWIFT payment bans, will soon stifle the air out of the economy like a plastic bag over the head.
Russia’s response will include cyber crime and cyber terrorism.
To ease the pain of sanctions, the North Korean regime raised money from cyber crime through the State’s Lazarus gang. This deposited billions of dollars into DPRK State coffers. Russians are far more cyber literate than North Koreans. Moscow-based Kaspersky Labs produce one of the most effective anti-virus products in the world. I mention this, not to endorse the Kaspersky product (the jury is still out as to whether Kaspersky users’ data is safe from prying Russian State eyes), but to illustrate the country’s significant cyber skills and capability.
For many years, Russia has hosted active cyber crime gangs operating with impunity from State prosecution as long as they do not target Russian individuals and companies. Then, out of the blue, in January this year Russian FSB authorities “arrested” members of the notorious REvil cyber crime gang responsible for numerous successful ransomware attacks in the West. We now know that at the same time, Putin was secretly putting finishing touches on his Ukraine invasion plan. Have REvil gang members been redeployed as State actors? In the light of what we now know, it is likely that rather than facing incarceration, members of the REvil gang have bolstered the ranks of a Russian State cyber attack unit.
Bitcoin, the currency of cyber crime, gets around the SWIFT payment ban. Cyber crime can finance a protracted war in eastern Europe and help circumvent Russian economic sanctions. Given considerable cyber capabilities which exist in Russia, the West will likely soon face State-sponsored cyber crime attacks which far surpass the sophistication and intensity of any the world has yet seen.
While cyber crime has the objective of making money, cyber terrorism aims to destabilise and destroy.
As sanctions bite, and Russians feel the effects of a crashing Rouble, withdrawal of well-liked brands, diminishing disposable incomes and standard of living, they will feel under intense economic attack from the West. Putin will become increasingly solitary as he fears similar grim fate to other personas non grata such as Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi. He will likely launch revenge attacks on the West, with cyber terrorism the favoured weapon. Up to now, countries have avoided all-out cyber terrorism for fear of attribution. Putin does not fear attribution having already shown that he is capable of nuclear terrorism, and unprovoked threats to nuke the West.
Russia’s considerable cyber resources will be directed to carry out cyber attacks on Western governments and economies in order to destroy or incapacitate infrastructure and organisations. With the world emerging from Covid restrictions where working from home is normalised, massive new cyber terrorism targets have opened up.
I’ve written here earlier about asymmetry of conventional and cyber war. Russian tank commanders fear entering Kyiv because it may be the last journey they make – the battle tank is a sitting duck in the city and well-equipped defenders have tactical advantage. Tank commanders know the city is like Hotel California – they can drive into the city but may never make it out alive. On the cyber battlefield, asymmetry works the other way around – attackers have huge advantage and only need to find one vulnerability. Make no mistake, Russia has considerable cyber capability and can wreak havoc on Western critical infrastructure and economies, at very little risk and cost.
When the West suffers consequences of cyber terrorism, to protect our economies we will need to decide whether to exclude Russia entirely from the internet. While this will not prevent cyber terrorism attacks completely, it will make it far more difficult for Russia to carry out cyber attacks. Like the Lazarus gang which operate mainly outside North Korea – in China and India – Russian attackers will be forced to operate from outside the country away from the protection of State impunity.
Without wishing to sound like a doomsayer, these scenarios are realistic – we will probably start seeing cyber attacks the likes of which the world has never before experienced. The West needs to act now to shore up cyber protections particularly around critical infrastructure and get serious about significantly bolstering other vulnerabilities such as WFH.