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Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

In the Cold War, the U.S. and Russia deterred any major attack by the other with existentially dangerous arsenals of nuclear-tipped missiles. Now, Russia has what it views as a potent new deterrent, experts say — cyber implants in the U.S. electric grid.

What's going on: Over the last year, Russian hackers have infiltrated power stations and other points on the U.S. grid — and now are inside hundreds, empowering them to create chaos with massive blackouts, U.S. officials say.

The big picture: Experts tell Axios that, rather than plotting an attack, the Kremlin is sending a deliberate message.

You guys better back up because look what we can do!
James Lewis, director of the technology program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies
  • In a special Axios report yesterday, current and former senior U.S. intelligence and security officials said a crippling cyberattack is the country's greatest threat. Security experts say a blackout, especially if prolonged, could create social and economic chaos — and possibly lead to civil violence.
  • U.S. officials are increasingly worried about the Russian breaches. On July 23, the Department of Homeland Security went public, describing the infiltrations by Kremlin-backed actors called Dragonfly or Energetic Bear, and it plans to ring the alarm in further briefings around the country.

In a way, the dynamic resembles the Cold War:

  • The U.S. and Moscow are eyeball to eyeball, each capable of taking down large parts of the other's infrastructure.
  • "Since 2015, the Russian government has been clear that it has wanted a nuclear-like deterrence in cyberspace," says Christopher Porter, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and chief intelligence strategist at FireEye, a cybersecurity firm. "The U.S. has shown 'shock and awe' in cyberspace, and Russia wants to show it can keep pace with the U.S."
  • That's why Russia has launched hundreds of incursions against the U.S. grid. There's no one main switch that can cause a massive nationwide blackout because the system itself is so decentralized.

But, unlike the depths of the Cold War, the two rivals have no treaty setting boundaries for weapons deployment and use. In both the Obama and Trump administrations, Russia has pushed for a cyber arms control agreement. But arms control experts say it will be extremely hard to formulate one that is verifiable and enforceable.

What's next: For now, experts say that, while Russia's grid attacks may seem aggressive, they have actually been comparatively restrained. In 2016, for instance, it attacked and took down a large part of Ukraine's electric grid, but did not use that as cover to send in tanks or capture more territory, Porter said. Instead, at this stage, in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere, Moscow seems to be signaling its capabilities.

  • Lewis added that, in the U.S. specifically: "There's been all this talk of doing something against Russia because of the election hacking. They want the option of doing something back."

Go deeper: The greatest threats facing the U.S., a special report from Axios.

Go deeper

Off the Rails

Episode 4: Trump turns on Barr

Photo illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios. Photos: Drew Angerer, Pool/Getty Images

Beginning on election night 2020 and continuing through his final days in office, Donald Trump unraveled and dragged America with him, to the point that his followers sacked the U.S. Capitol with two weeks left in his term. Axios takes you inside the collapse of a president with a special series.

Episode 4: Trump torches what is arguably the most consequential relationship in his Cabinet.

Attorney General Bill Barr stood behind a chair in the private dining room next to the Oval Office, looming over Donald Trump. The president sat at the head of the table. It was Dec. 1, nearly a month after the election, and Barr had some sharp advice to get off his chest. The president's theories about a stolen election, Barr told Trump, were "bullshit."

In photos: Protests outside fortified capitols draw only small groups

Armed members of the far-right extremist group the Boogaloo Bois near the Michigan Capitol Building in Lansing on Jan. 17. About 20 protesters showed up, AP notes. Photo: Seth Herald/AFP via Getty Images

Small groups of protesters gathered outside fortified statehouses across the U.S. over the weekend ahead of President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration Wednesday.

The big picture: Some protests attracted armed members of far-right extremist groups but there were no reports of clashes, as had been feared. The National Guard and law enforcement outnumbered demonstrators, as security was heightened around the U.S. to avoid a repeat of the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riots, per AP.

Felix Salmon, author of Capital
9 hours ago - World

China's economy grows 6.5% in Q4 as country rebounds from coronavirus

A technician installs and checks service robots to be be used for food and medicine delivery in Jiaxing, Zhejiang Province, China, on Sunday. Photo: Hu Xuejun/VCG via Getty Images

China's economy grew at a 6.5% pace in the final quarter of 2020, the national statistics bureau announced Monday local time, topping off a year in which it grew in three of four quarters and by 2.3% in total.

Why it matters: No other major economy managed positive growth in 2020. Although the COVID-19 pandemic was first detected in China, the country got the virus under control and became one of the main positive drivers of the global economy even as the rest of the world was largely under lockdown.