The Biden administration is preparing a series of aggressive cyber attacks on Russia in a major shift in tactics designed as a warning shot to rival powers.
The attack, which is expected in the next fortnight, is in retaliation for the SolarWinds hack, the large-scale infiltration of American government agencies and corporations discovered late last year that was traced back to the Kremlin.
It comes after Joe Biden this week engaged in a war of words with Vladimir Putin, calling the Russian president a “killer”, while the White Houses attacked China for rights abuses in a tense opening of face-to-face talks.
The US will not target civilian structures or networks, but the hack is instead designed as a direct challenge to Mr Putin, Russia’s President, and his cyber army, The Telegraph understands.
The White House confirmed it will take “a mix of actions” – both “seen and unseen” – although it did not provide specifics on when and how it would do so.
Any such move would mark a different tact taken by previous administrations, which have largely acted defensively against Moscow’s cyber warfare. Donald Trump took a much more cautious approach on Russia, being careful never to directly criticise or challenge the regime.
“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,” Jake Sullivan, US National Security Adviser, told the New York Times this week.
A senior Russian government source said they were anticipating the cyber attacks would come in the form of “large-scale information campaign” aimed at discrediting its coronavirus vaccine.
Russian officials are reportedly expecting “fake news” around the efficacy of its Sputnik-V vaccine, primarily targeted at the European countries which have given emergency approval to the shot such as Hungary, Slovakia and Serbia.
Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said he was alarmed by the reports. “This would be pure international cybercrime,” he told state media.
In his first real foray into foreign policy since taking office in January, Mr Biden this week signalled he will pursue an aggressive stance against America’s foes.
A simmering feud with Moscow escalated this week when Mr Biden blasted Mr Putin as a “killer”, promoting the stung Russian president and his aides to brand the new US commander-in-chief old and senile.
Days earlier, US intelligence agencies released a report into Russia’s attempt to interfere with the November election in Mr Trump’s favour.
“Biden will do something in the next few weeks that Trump never could – preparing for retaliation against Russia,” said Frank Figliuzzi, former FBI Assistant Director.
Russia and the US had committed to the so-called cyber confidence building measures that allowed the countries to have a confidential beeline about possible breaches but the agreement collapsed spectacularly in 2016 when Russian hackers targeted the Democratic National Committee.
The US then took an unprecedented step to name and share Russia’s government-linked hackers, but it did not deter other attacks.
“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 cyber crime, told The Sunday Telegraph.
“The old strategies of containment no longer work,” Mr Soldatov, said added.
Brett Bruen, a former US diplomat who served as director of global engagement in President Obama’s White House, told The Telegraph: “Whether it’s Russia or China we are going to have to put some teeth on the policies. There’s been a whole lot of statements, we have to be willing to throw some weight behind what we’re doing,”
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin used a meeting with his Indian counterpart in New Delhi on Saturday, to warn against buying Russian military equipment.