By Callie Hietala
U.S Sen. Mark Warner, D-Alexandria, warned that Russian aggression could extend beyond the real-world conflict in Ukraine and into the virtual Western world.
“It is safe to say we should anticipate that we will see Russian activity in the cyber domain directed against the West,” Warner said during a March 23 meeting with media.
Warner, a former technology entrepreneur, is the chairman of the Senate Select Committee on intelligence and co-chairman of the Senate cybersecurity caucus.
His warning came on the heels of a similar statement on March 21 by President Joe Biden.
“This is a critical moment to accelerate our work to improve domestic cybersecurity and bolster our national resilience,” Biden said in a statement.
“I have previously warned about the potential that Russia could conduct malicious cyber activity against the United States, including as a response to the unprecedented economic costs we’ve imposed on Russia alongside our allies and partners. It’s part of Russia’s playbook. Today, my Administration is reiterating those warning based on evolving intelligence that the Russian Government is exploring options for potential cyberattacks.”
Biden urged those in the private sector, which owns and operates most of the nation’s critical infrastructure, to “harden your cyber defenses immediately.”
In addition to the “steady bombardment of civilian as well as military targets” and the “punishing displacement now of close to 10 million Ukrainians,” Warner said cyberattacks could be yet another element of Russia’s ongoing war that could extend beyond Ukrainian borders.
Warner said he expects Russians to target a number of sectors, including the financial and energy sectors.
On March 1, the Senate unanimously passed a bill championed by Warner requiring companies responsible for critical U.S. infrastructure to report cybersecurity incidents to the government. Currently, he said, about 30 percent of cyberattacks are reported. The bill has not yet passed the House.
Should Russians launch any such attacks, “we’ve never seen what cyber escalation looks like,” Warner said. Whether or not an escalation of attacks in the cyber realm could lead to military conflict is “an open question,” he said and speculated that such unknowns could be why Russian president Vladimir Putin has withheld attacks in the virtual realm.
“Both the U.S. and Russia have hundreds, if not thousands, of extraordinarily sophisticated cyber tools, Warner said. The U.S. is “still looking for reasons why Putin hasn’t launched more of these tools. It may be one area that he’s showing some restraint” because he does not know what potential escalation could lead to. However, as Putin becomes “more isolated and less successful on the battlefield, this possibility is real,” Warner said.