11 July 2019

We must deter Russian cyberattacks to prevent a digital Cold War

Dave Weinstein, Opinion contributorPublished 3:15 a.m. ET July 6, 2019

National security adviser John Bolton recently declared that “we’re now opening the aperture, broadening the areas we’re prepared to act” in cyberspace to meet a Russian threatthat extends far beyond the ballot box, costing American companies billions of dollars and posing unacceptable risks to our citizens’ safety and the American way of life. 

It’s about time.

For years, the Russians have been preparing the digital battlefield, treating our critical infrastructure as if it were their own cyber weapons range

Overseas they’ve gone even further. In 2015 and 2016, the Kremlin planted malware in Ukraine’s electric grid, disrupting power for hundreds of thousands of residents in the middle of winter. Keenly aware of its capabilities and motivations, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats has said that “the warning lights are blinking red again” — an allusion to CIA Director George Tenet’s warning to Congress just months before 9/11.

The federal government has a fundamental responsibility to deter Russia and other state actors from holding civilian infrastructure at risk. This is precisely why reports from The New York Times that the United States is embedding “potentially crippling malware” in Russia’s power grid should concern all Americans. Cyber weapons are horrible deterrents — and mimicking targeting civilian infrastructure sets a dangerous precedent for America. 

Power lines in South San Francisco in August 2007. (Photo: Justin Sullivan, Getty Images)

Fear of punishment or retribution is a fundamental tenet of deterrence theory. And it’s true, as the head of U.S. Cyber Command, Army Gen. Paul Nakasone, told a Senate panel last year, the Russians “don’t fear us.” But to think that Vladimir Putin fears cyber-induced power outages in Moscow is a naive and dangerous miscalculation. To the contrary, an American cyberattack against Russia’s power grid would play right into the Kremlin's strategic playbook.

First, the costs to the Kremlin would pale in comparison with the benefits. The vast scale of Russia’s power grids, which include a total power generation capacity of 236 gigawatts, would render the military effects of any cyberattack relatively limited while granting the Kremlin its long-awaited case study of American cyber aggression, which it would use to consolidate domestic support for more censorship policies under the guise of cybersecurity.

Furthermore, an American cyberattack against civilian infrastructure — especially a preventative one aimed at deterring Russian hackers — would erode the United States’ international credibility as a champion of a free and open internet governed by universal norms of acceptable behavior. Far more than sporadic blackouts — something that isn’t uncommon anyway in Russia — Putin fears a digital age in which the West writes the rules.

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