The White House on Friday accused Russia of being responsible for recent cyberattacks targeting Ukraine’s defense ministry and major banks.
The announcement from Anne Neuberger, the White House’s chief cyber official, was the most pointed attribution of responsibility for cyber intrusions that have unfolded as tensions escalate between Russia and Ukraine.
The attacks this week were of “limited impact” since Ukrainian officials were able to quickly get their networks back online, but it is possible that they were laying the groundwork for more destructive intrusions, Neuberger said.
She said the U.S. had rapidly linked the attacks to Russia and was publicly blaming the Kremlin because of a need to “call out the behavior quickly.” She said there was no intelligence indicating that the U.S. would be targeted by a cyberattack.
Ukrainian officials called Tuesday’s distributed denial of service attacks the worst in the country’s history.
But while they definitely disrupted online banking, impeded some government-to-public communications and were clearly intended to cause panic, they were not particularly serious by global or historic standards, said Roland Dobbins, the top engineer for DDoS at the cybersecurity firm Netscout.
“Most DDoS attacks succeed due to the lack of preparation on the part of the defenders,” said Dobbins, adding that most commercial mitigation services designed to counter such attacks would likely have been able to fend off Tuesday’s attacks.
Meanwhile, a senior White House official warned on Friday that international sanctions promised by the US if Russian President Vladimir Putin decides to send troops to invade Ukraine will make Russia a “pariah”.
Moscow has repeatedly stated that it has no intention of invading Ukraine but instead wants guarantees from NATO that Ukraine and other former Soviet states would not be admitted into the alliance.
“It would become a pariah to the international community. It will be isolated from global financial markets and deprived of the most sophisticated technological inputs,” White House Deputy National Security Adviser for International Economics Daleep told reporters.
Vice President Kamala Harris said the U.S. still hopes Russia will de-escalate but is ready to hit it with tough sanctions in case of an attack. U.S. leaders this week issued their most dire warnings yet that Moscow could order an invasion of Ukraine any day.
“We remain, of course, open to and desirous of diplomacy … but we are also committed, if Russia takes aggressive action, to ensure there will be severe consequence,” Harris said at the annual Munich Security Conference.
Earlier, a Ukrainian separatist leader called on residents to flee to Russia.
Denis Pushilin, the head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), said in a statement that the Ukrainian army planned to “seize the Donbas by force” and that civilians needed to be evacuated.
He accused Ukrainian forces of having amassed “troops and lethal weapons” along the line of contact and claimed that the army is now “in combat formation and ready”.
“The lives and health of our citizens may be endangered if the enemy shells populated areas of the republic.
“For this reason, as from today, 18 February, a mass centralised evacuation of the population to the Russian Federation has been organised,” he stated.
Authorities began moving children from an orphanage in Donetsk, and other residents boarded buses for Russia. Long lines formed at gas stations as more people prepared to leave on their own.
Putin ordered his emergencies minister to fly to the Rostov region bordering Ukraine to help organize the exodus and ordered the government to offer a payment of 10,000 rubles (about $130) to each evacuee, equivalent to about half of an average monthly salary in the war-ravaged Donbas.
A Ukrainian government spokesperson said that Ukraine had no intention to launch military action in the Donbas.
“We categorically refute Russian disinformation reports on Ukraine’s alleged offensive operations or acts of sabotage in chemical production facilities. Ukraine does not conduct or plan any such actions in the Donbas. We are fully committed to diplomatic conflict resolution only,” said Dmytro Kuleba.