Feb 24, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Top senator warns Putin cyberattacks could trigger bigger war

Sen. Mark Warner is seen speaking on a cellphone.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner. Photo: Tom Brenner/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The top senator overseeing U.S. intelligence agencies tells Axios he's deeply concerned cyberattacks launched by Russian President Vladimir Putin could morph into a broader war that draws in NATO nations — including the United States.

Why it matters: President Biden has ruled out American boots on the ground in Ukraine. But Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.), said in an interview Wednesday that Putin's actions during the next few days risk triggering NATO's Article 5 collective defense principle.

  • In a 2021 communique, NATO affirmed the alliance would weigh whether to trigger its Article 5 mutual defense pact over a cyberattack "on a case-by-case basis."
  • It said the response "need not be restricted to the cyber domain."

Details: Warner foresees two ways a digital war could draw in NATO countries, including the United States:

  1. Putin deploys cyber weapons inside Ukraine that take on a life of their own and spread to NATO member states. This has happened before — most notably in 2017, when Russia's NotPetya malware was unleashed in Ukraine and ended up causing billions of dollars in damage to companies worldwide.
  2. Putin retaliates against the West's toughest sanctions by ordering direct cyberattacks targeting infrastructure inside the U.S. and other NATO allies. The U.S. government issued an alert this week urging businesses and agencies to protect their "most critical digital assets," citing "the potential for the Russian government to consider escalating its destabilizing actions" beyond Ukraine.

What they're saying: "If you're suddenly having 190,000 troops attack Ukraine, chances are, if he's coming in that hard kinetic, that the cyberattack will not be a single piece of malware," Warner told Axios.

  • He spoke shortly after news broke of cyberattacks bringing down Ukrainian government websites.
  • "Nation states have been holding on to these malware tools. They've been storing them up; we have, too, literally for years on end," he said.
  • "If you unleash not one, but five, or 10, or 50, or 1,000 at Ukraine, the chances of that staying within the Ukrainian geographic border is quite small. ... It could spread to America, could spread to the U.K., but the more likely effect will be spreading to adjacent geographic territory ... [such as] Poland."
  • "It suddenly gets into a gray area about, what would the Polish people's reaction be? What would NATO's reaction be? What would America's reaction be? Nobody's physically shot at [American troops], but they could come in harm's way."

Then there are potential cyberattacks from Putin targeted at NATO member states.

  • "Putin's been pretty clear that one of the first tools he would use to bring economic harm to NATO and America is cyber," Warner said.
  • "Play over that whole scenario, just at a larger level, and all the hypothetical conversations about what will constitute an act of war ... suddenly get very real."
  • Dmitri Alperovitch, a Russian-born U.S. computer security expert, said Putin could respond to the most severe Western sanctions by giving ransomware groups an "implicit carte blanche" to declare "open season," while Russian government forces could be ordered to target critical infrastructure.

Context: The "denial-of-service" attacks reported in Ukraine during the past two weeks were significant, but nowhere near the scale of the massive Russian cyberattacks U.S. officials fear could paralyze communications and shut down critical infrastructure during an invasion.

  • Fears of cyberwarfare "spillover" are entirely reasonable, since many forms of malware are designed to multiply and overwhelm targets and continue wreaking havoc.
  • They rarely have "off" buttons by design — and they don't recognize international boundaries.

Between the lines: Warner said the U.S. and other NATO countries have avoided formulating "rules of engagement" governing cyberattacks because they see value in maintaining "strategic ambiguity."

  • The senator said he's been trying to force these conversations for some time — to establish more clarity around international standards and attribution for cyberattacks and their responses.
  • He worries Putin's actions during the next few days could force underprepared NATO allies to answer these questions in real time.
  • "This has been that area that's been kind of viewed as nerdy and hypothetical," Warner said. "I hope we can have a conversation a week from now, and you could say, 'Hey, senator, you were totally wrong and we're still in the same status.'"

The bottom line: Warner said that if a Putin cyberattack harms a NATO member, he would "err on the side of a stronger response" from the U.S.

Go deeper: The latest on the Russia-Ukraine crisis

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