The war in Ukraine has pushed the United States to expedite its investment in cybersecurity amid constant — though so far unrealized — warnings of Russian cyberattacks on government agencies, election systems and critical infrastructure.
Following the invasion of Ukraine, federal agencies have invested millions in cyber technology, seized and sanctioned hacking forums, charged Russian cyber criminals, and issued almost weekly warnings on the latest threat risks.
Even lawmakers in Congress have stepped up their efforts, with the introduction of several cyber-related bills, and the passage of a new law requiring companies in critical sectors to report significant cyberattacks within 72 hours and ransomware payments within 24 hours.
The legislation passed in March as part of an omnibus spending bill that significantly increased funding for the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), which oversees federal cybersecurity infrastructure and enforcement.
“The war in Ukraine is sort of a focusing event for getting some legislative initiative and momentum, and getting some public support that this is an issue that their representatives should care about,” said Jason Blessing, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
“As terrible as the war has been, it’s an opportunity for the U.S. government to establish more robust cyber frameworks,” he added.
Lawmakers have also held several committee hearings on cybersecurity over the last couple weeks, inviting experts – from the private sector and the government – to weigh in on current cyber threats and how to stop them.
Although many of these efforts predate the Russian invasion, experts say that the war in Ukraine gave the actions momentum and priority, such as lawmakers passing the cyber incident reporting law and the Department of Justice (DOJ) indicting Russian hackers.
“The DOJ had clearly been investigating the hackers who were charged in March for some time prior to that announcement, but I think it’s possible that the war prompted them to go public with those charges sooner than they otherwise might have,” said Josephine Wolff, an associate professor of cybersecurity policy at the Tufts University Fletcher School.
The DOJ in March charged four Russian nationals accused of hacking energy sectors in 135 countries. In one of the indictments, a Russian computer programmer and his co-conspirator were alleged to have targeted a foreign oil facility, causing two separate emergency shutdowns.
“I do think the war has had some impacts, but I think it’s hard to disentangle those from the work that was already in progress and in some cases, rather than prompting new initiatives, the war may have accelerated the timeline for things that were already in the works,” Wolff added.
Despite the U.S. sounding the cyber alarm, Russia is still showing restraint in the face of crippling economic sanctions. Experts and policymakers still warn that Russian cyber aggression is only a matter of time, particularly with midterm elections around the corner.
However, Russia has recently targeted critical infrastructure in European countries including Ukraine and Germany.
Ukraine has been the target of numerous cyberattacks that have disrupted its government websites and critical infrastructure, including the country’s power grid.
And earlier this month, three German-based renewable energy companies disclosed that they were hit with cyberattacks that disrupted operations and forced one company to shut down its information technology systems.
The attack on the companies follows the decision of many western European countries to reduce their reliance on Russian oil and gas as they transition to more eco-friendly energy sources.
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has been among the loudest voices warning of Russian cyber aggression toward the U.S. In a statement to The Hill, he said the resulting urgency and cooperation has strengthened the country’s cyber defenses, even if the attacks have not come to fruition.
“The possibility that Russia will ramp up its cyber aggression has forced the federal government to grapple seriously with worst-case scenarios, and expedite government and private sector investments in improving our nation’s cybersecurity,” Warner said.