US plans ‘aggressive’ cyber offensive against Russia in retaliation for SolarWinds attack

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The Biden administration is planning an “aggressive” cyber offensive against Russia in retaliation for the devastating SolarWinds attack that was traced back to the Kremlin.

According to The Telegraph, the attack is expected within the next fortnight and will not target civilian structures or networks.

Both US government agencies and private companies were infiltrated as part of the large SolarWinds attack that was detected late last year—the full extent of which is still being uncovered. Security researchers traced the cyberattack back to Russia.

The planned cyber retaliation by the Biden administration signals a major policy shift away from that of his predecessor’s which was oft-criticised for being weak in the face of increasing aggression from Russia and China while causing friction with historic allies.

“[The cyberattack is] designed as a direct challenge to Mr Putin, Russia’s President, and his cyber army,” wrote The Telegraph.

The White House confirmed it will take “a mix of actions” that are both “seen and unseen”.

Speaking to the New York Times last week, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said:

“I actually believe that a set of measures that are understood by the Russians, but may not be visible to the broader world, are actually likely to be the most effective measures in terms of clarifying what the United States believes are in bounds and out of bounds, and what we are prepared to do in response.”

Former US President Donald Trump reportedly ignored official intelligence findings that a covert Russian GRU military unit – the same blamed for the chemical weapon attack in Salisbury, UK – had placed bounties on the heads of American and British soldiers in Afghanistan.

In contrast, President Biden recently branded his Russian counterpart “a killer” following a US intelligence report which linked Moscow to a campaign that sought to influence the 2020 presidential elections in favour of Trump.

While there are fairly established rules of engagement and boundaries for traditional means of conflict—when it comes to cyber-warfare, much is still open to interpretation.

However, back in 2017, following the WannaCry attack – which crippled vital systems including the UK’s NHS – and Petya – which hit Ukraine the hardest, causing systems to go offline including at the Chernobyl plant – NATO warned that such attacks could trigger Article 5 of the treaty.

Article 5 is the basic principle of NATO’s collective defence and is the idea that an attack on one member is deemed an attack on all. If invoked, Article 5 ties all members to a collective response. It has only been invoked once, by the US following the 9/11 attacks.

“As important government systems have been targeted, then in case the operation is attributed to a state this could count as a violation of sovereignty. Consequently, this could be an internationally wrongful act, which might give the targeted states several options to respond with countermeasures,“ said Tomáš Minárik, Researcher at NATO CCD COE Law Branch, back in 2017.

Since the recent SolarWinds attack targeted government systems, the same principle applies. Cyberattacks could quickly escalate to full-scale warfare.

“There’s a lot of confusion about how (the US will) respond because the old strategies of dealing with (Russia) no longer work,” Andrei Soldatov, a Russian expert in cybercrime, told The Sunday Telegraph.

“The old strategies of containment no longer work.”

(Photo by Joshua Sukoff on Unsplash)

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