David E. Sanger and Julian E. Barnes reporting via the New York Times: In the closing days of 2015, the lights went out across a swath of Ukraine as Russian hackers remotely took over an electric utility’s control center and flipped off one power station after another, while the company’s operators stared at their screens helplessly. The next year, the same thing happened, this time around Kyiv, the capital.
Now the United States and Britain have quietly dispatched cyberwarfare experts to Ukraine in hopes of better preparing the country to confront what they think may be the next move by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia as he again menaces the former Soviet republic: Not an invasion with the 175,000 troops he is massing on the border, but cyberattacks that take down the electric grid, the banking system, and other critical components of Ukraine’s economy and government.
Russia’s goal, according to American intelligence assessments, would be to make Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, look inept and defenseless — and perhaps provide an excuse for an invasion.
The Russian cyberactivity was discussed by roughly a dozen officials, who requested anonymity because the information was derived from classified intelligence and sensitive discussions about how to mitigate the Russian threat. Those conversations have focused on whether Mr. Putin thinks that a crippling of Ukraine’s infrastructure could be his best hope of achieving his primary goal: ousting the Ukrainian government and replacing it with a puppet leader.
The calculus, one senior intelligence official said, would be that such an attack would not require him to occupy the country — or suffer as many of the sanctions that would almost certainly follow a physical invasion.
Already Mr. Putin has been working to build support domestically and in Africa and South and Central America. Russian-led information campaigns have been focused on denigrating the Ukrainian government and accusing its leader of creating a humanitarian crisis in the country’s east, where Ukrainian government forces have been battling Russia-led separatists for years, according to U.S. and allied officials. American officials declined to describe the cyberteams that have been inserted into Ukraine. In a statement, the Biden administration said only that “we have long supported Ukraine’s efforts to shore up cyberdefenses and increase its cyberresiliency.” A spokeswoman for the British government said the assistance that Britain and its allies were providing was defensive in nature. While neither government would provide details, officials said the United States was considering a larger deployment, including resources from U.S. Cyber Command. But it is unclear how much good a bigger team could do beyond demonstrating support.