Thu | Dec 16, 2021 | 1:31 PM PST

Are we already in a cyberwar with Russia? An advisor close to Putin says we are, and it's intensive.

Ever since Russian-backed threat actors breached SolarWinds in 2020, tensions in cyberspace have steadily increased between the United States and the former Soviet Union.

U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin have had ongoing discussions related to cyberwarfare, and more specifically, ransomware.

Security researchers believe that Russian hackers were not only responsible for the SolarWinds incident—which left thousands of organizations and government agencies vulnerable to cyberattacks—but they are also responsible for other ransomware attacks on critical infrastructure.

The Colonial Pipeline and JBS Foods incidents are two of the largest and most impactful ransomware attacks the U.S. experienced in 2021.

Following these attacks, President Biden warned Putin that there would be severe consequences if ransomware attacks continued on critical infrastructure. He threatened economic sanctions against the country, and  NATO has sanctioned the possibility of a physical, boots-on-the ground retaliation.

This might sound like we are in the beginning stages of a serious cyberwar, but some say we are already in the thick of it.

Cyberwarfare is the Third World War

It has long been theorized that a third world war would look much different from the first two, that is, assuming the world's powers want humanity to continue.

A third world war would be much more discrete. With the way technology has expanded in the last few decades, cyberwarfare appears to be the most likely battle front.

Alexander Krutskikh, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s international information security director, spoke earlier this week about the developing cyberwar between Western allies and Russia. The Washington Examiner quoted him as saying the following:

"The war [in cyberspace] is underway and unfolding very intensively. The media rightly says that this a Third World War, and what matters now is to calculate the damage and determine who will lose it in the end and what shape the world will eventually acquire as a result of this war.

No matter how hard we may try to say that all this is disguised and that it isn’t that war or this war, in actual fact, military activities in cyberspace are in full swing."

In an attempt to deter Russia from taking any further actions, U.S. foreign policymakers are threatening to impose "devastating economic sanctions" on Russia.

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez discusses the impact of the sanctions:

"The Russian banking sector would be wiped out. Sovereign debt would be blocked. Russia would be removed from the SWIFT payment system ... What is being discussed is at the maximum end of that spectrum, or as I have called it, the mother of all sanctions."

Krutskikh responded:

"When we face threats of being disconnected from SWIFT, from financial flows, those not being on the scale of ordinary actions, this is also an issue of national security. In other words, this technology has involved certain issues in the questions of war and peace probably for the first time in recent years."

U.S. falls behind in cyberwarfare

Earlier this year, retired United States Airforce and CNN Military Analyst Col. Cedric Leighton spoke at one of SecureWorld's virtual conferences and discussed the current state of the ongoing cyber war.

He talks about the adversaries of Western countries, like Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea, the role of ransomware, and what the U.S. can do to improve their chances of fighting and winning a war without a battlefield.

He believes the U.S. is falling behind and what we can do to catch up:

"First of all, we have to tell each other the truth, we have to understand the state of play. And in this particular case, I think it's fair to say that we are being out fought and outflanked at every step of the cyber warfare paradigm.

In order to combat this, in order to avoid being outmaneuvered, outflanked, and outfought, we need to develop a real cyber strategy. That means a coherent cyber strategy that includes everyone in our society, not just the government sector, not just organizations, such as think tanks or universities, and not just private entities, like corporations, or even individuals. But everyone."

According to Col. Leighton, one of our biggest challenges is improving our cyber workforce:

"To be frank, the training of our cyber workforce is terrible. And the fact that it has not kept pace with the threats that are out there is a testimony to the need to revamp that training. We have to learn not only to deal with ones and zeros, we have to learn to out think the enemy.

It's not just the fact that we need to be responsive to what they're doing. But we have to anticipate their next moves. And that's why it's clear that we need to develop a completely new way of thinking about cyber warfare.

In order to do that, we have to realize that a whole of society approach to cyber warfare is the only way that we can succeed against rivals such as Russia, China, and North Korea and even Iran."

It will be fascinating, and somewhat terrifying, to see how cyberwarfare evolves in the coming years. 

Cyberwar: what is next?

Listen to Col. Leighton discuss cyberwar and what is next when it comes to nation-state cyber threats on a recent SecureWorld Sessions podcast:

Follow the SecureWorld News page for updates on the developing cyber war and any other cybersecurity related news.