Russia's Holding Back Cyber Capabilities in Ukraine

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'If Russia really wanted to deal a devastating blow . . . they could have definitely done it.'

There is a big difference between the known capabilities of Russian hackers -- such as cyber espionage -- and the debilitating software the country actually possesses, which could hamper U.S. efforts to predict Putin’s next move, say some security researchers. 

So, far Russia's alleged cyber operations amid unrest in Ukraine have caused more spectacle than destruction. Reportedly a “massive denial-of-service attack” paralyzed Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council servers for several hours last week, but such temporary traffic floods cannot access data or damage systems. 

This doesn't mean Russia can't carry out a cyberattack that would physically or economically damage Ukrainian citizens. 

"Russia has the capability to completely shut down Ukraine's infrastructure," Jeffrey Carr, author of Inside Cyber Warfare and a government consultant, said during an interview. "But if they did that it would be inviting all kinds of sanctions."

Russian contacts have told Carr that laboratories in the country are at work on programs that could degrade industrial control systems, such as power plants, he said.

"I've been preaching this gospel to the federal government for years," said Carr, founder of Taia Global. "Most of our customers have been overseas. The UK's MI6, the Finnish Air Force . . . they are much more interested in Russian research and development and the Russian government than the U.S. government has been." 

Former top federal officials also have warned about underestimating Russia’s cyber military abilities. 

John Bumgarner, a one-time U.S. intelligence officer, who now works for the nonprofit U.S. Cyber Consequences Unit and advises governments on security issues, told Bloomberg Businessweek: “If Russia really wanted to deal a devastating blow . . . they could have definitely done it.”

Michael Hayden, a former CIA director and NSA director under President George W. Bush, told the Daily Beast. “Here our Secretary of State is saying this is not the Cold War, it’s win-win and it’s not zero sum. But for Vladimir Putin it is zero sum. That’s what we need to understand.”

This story has been updated to correct a typo. 

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