Worries build about winter cyber threats in Ukraine

With help from Joseph Gedeon, Lara Seligman and Daniel Lippman

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Ukraine and its NATO allies are girding for potential Russian government-backed hacks of electric grids and other critical infrastructure as winter closes in.

It’s a threat that government officials and cybersecurity experts alike are growing increasingly worried about as the Russian ground invasion grinds on and Russian President VLADIMIR PUTIN grows more desperate to gain and hold territory.

Russia has a long history of going after Ukraine’s critical infrastructure in the winter months (even temporarily turning off the lights for millions in Ukraine in attacks in 2015 and 2016).

There’ve already been multiple Russian cyberattacks this year, including one in April in which Russian hackers unsuccessfully launched an attack against Ukrainian energy infrastructure. As winter sets in, letting Europeans freeze could be an attractive option to put pressure on both Ukraine and the NATO alliance.

“The Europeans are hanging together for the moment, but as winter comes and peoples’ babies are cold, and the prioritization of whose babies come first, the calculus might change,” Samantha Ravich, chair of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Center on Cyber and Technology Innovation, said when NatSec Daily asked about the issue at a briefing this week. “Putin absolutely understands how to divide adversaries to get more of what he wants.”

A senior Biden administration official told NatSec Daily they had similar concerns, noting that while Ukraine has done a lot of work to prepare for the cyber onslaught, Russia was likely to see the colder months as an opportunity to squeeze the Ukrainian people further through cyberattacks on key systems.

“We’re at the end of October, winter’s coming,” the official said, who was granted anonymity in order to speak freely. They pointed to the widespread missile strikes on the Ukrainian energy grid in recent weeks as…