Minutes after US President Joe Biden announced new sanctions on Russian banks and elites Tuesday, a senior FBI cyber official asked US businesses and local governments to be mindful of the potential for ransomware attacks as the crisis over the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine deepens.
Russia is a “permissive operating environment” for cybercriminals, one that “is not going to get any smaller” as Russia’s confrontation with the West over Ukraine continues and further sanctions are announced, the FBI’s David Ring said on a phone briefing with private executives and state and local officials, according to two people who were on the call.
Ring asked state and local officials and business executives to consider how ransomware attacks could disrupt the provision of critical services, the people on the call said.
US officials continue to say there are “no specific, credible” threats to the US homeland tied to tensions with Russia over Ukraine, but they are preaching vigilance.
The willingness of Russian-speaking cybercriminals to disrupt US critical infrastructure has been a US concern for years, but came to a head last year when a ransomware attack forced major fuel transporter Colonial Pipeline to shut down for days.
The phone call was one of a series of recurring briefings that FBI and Department of Homeland Security officials have had for US companies and local governments in the last two months in light of US tensions with Russia over Ukraine. It was scheduled before it was clear that Biden was addressing Russia’s latest moves in Ukraine on Tuesday.
The US President announced the “first tranche” of sanctions against Russian entities for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to recognize two breakaway regions in Ukraine and send troops there.
The US could also see “a possible increase in cyber threat activity” from Russian state-backed hackers as a result of those sanctions, Ring said, according to the people on the call.
“DHS has been engaging in an outreach campaign to ensure that public and private sector partners are aware of evolving cybersecurity risks and taking steps to increase their cybersecurity preparedness,” a DHS spokesperson said in a statement.
CNN has requested comment from the FBI.
The extortion of Colonial Pipeline underscored for Biden administration officials the economic and national security threat posed by ransomware. The incident triggered long lines at gas stations in multiple US states and prompted Biden to call on Russian President Vladimir Putin to rein in cybercriminals operating from Russian soil.
More background: While ransomware attacks on US organizations by Russian-speaking hackers have continued, Russian authorities have dangled the prospect of cracking down on some groups in recent months, as the standoff of Ukraine brewed.
The US believes Russia has detained the person responsible for the Colonial Pipeline hack, but any cooperation between the two governments on cybercrime could be elusive if relations further deteriorate over Ukraine, according to some analysts.
After the cyberattacks on Ukrainian government and banking websites last week that the Biden administration blamed on Russia’s military intelligence directorate, US officials continue to see Russian cyber operations as likely playing a role in any further military invasion.
In the event of a larger conflict between Russia and Ukraine, US officials are concerned that transportation networks and broadcast media in Ukraine could be shut down by kinetic or cyberattacks, Matthew Hackner, an official in DHS’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis, said on Tuesday’s phone briefing, according to people on the call.
Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba says he knows what Russian President Vladimir Putin’s long-term objective is.
Putin “wants the idea of the Ukrainian statehood to fail. This is his objective.”
Kuleba’s comments come one day after President Vladimir Putin ordered troops into pro-Russian regions of eastern Ukraine just hours after he signed decrees recognizing the independence of the Moscow-backed regions.
“What I know for certain, and this was eloquently proved, regretfully, in his address yesterday, is that he hates [the] Ukrainian statehood, he believes that Ukraine has no right to exist,” Kuleba said of Putin.
Following the deployment of Russian troops into eastern Ukraine, US President Joe Biden said that such maneuvering constitutes the beginning of “an invasion.” In response, Biden announced what he labeled “the first tranche of sanctions,” including on two large financial institutions, Russian sovereign debt and Russian elites and their family members.
Though Kuleba supports the sanctions as laid out by Biden, calling them an “important” message, he maintains they are insufficient as the situation stands now.
“No sanctions will be enough until Russian boots withdraw from Ukrainian soil,” said Kuleba on CNN. “This is [the] fundamental principle, that we have to keep putting pressure on Russia and we in Ukraine proceed from the fact that the sanctions announced today by President Biden is just the beginning of the process of deterring president Putin and making him withdraw.”
On the topic of specific forthcoming sanctions, Kuleba suggested no single option or possibility should be left off the global table.
“We want every instrument available to be used in order to stop Putin,” he said. “If the price of saving a country is the most, harshest sanctions possible, then we should go for the harshest sanctions possible.”
While Kuleba told Tapper that the moving of Russian troops into the Ukrainian-controlled parts of the Donbas region would mark another crossing of a line by Putin, he noted that the ongoing conflict manifests itself along a multitude of fronts.
“We should be aware of the simple fact: this is hybrid warfare. Russia can attack physically, but also Russian can attack us in cyberspace … We are in a dialogue with partners including the United States about the identification of these red lines which will be responded with sanctions,” he said, adding, “I want to make it clear that we have to get ready to act in a very swift manner because the situation can change literally every hour.”
Asked by Tapper to explain why the United States — which sits thousands of miles from Ukraine — ought to be invested in the conflict, Kuleba pointed to three key factors.
- “First, in 1994 Ukraine abandoned its nuclear arsenal which was the third in size in the world … We abandoned it in return for security guarantees issued in particular by the United States. We were promised that if anyone attacks us, the United States would be among countries who will be helping us.”
- “Second, what is happening in Ukraine is not only about Ukraine. President Putin challenges Euro-Atlantic order. If the West fails in Ukraine, the next target of Putin will be one of the NATO members on its eastern flank.”
- “Third, if Putin succeeds in Ukraine, other players across the globe who want to change rules, who want to bypass the United States, they will see that this is possible, that the West is incapable of defending what it stands for.”
In summing up his explanation as to why the US involvement in the conflict is appropriate, Kuleba said: “All in all … Americans should be interested in keeping the world order as it stands and the future of this order is being decided right now in Ukraine.”
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York, has requested an all- senator briefing on the Ukraine situation from the Biden administration, according to spokesman for Schumer.
Details of where and when the briefing may occur were not immediately available.
The Senate is in recess this week, as is the House.
The request comes as the Biden administration unveiled new sanctions to respond to Moscow, with President Biden describing the events now underway in Ukraine as “the beginning of a Russian invasion.”
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said nobody can predict the future of the Nord Stream 2gas pipeline, following Russia’s actions in eastern Ukraine, after earlier halting the progression of the pipeline.
Speaking in a televised address on German television on Tuesday evening, local time, Scholz said, “We are having a situation right now when nobody should bet on it [Nord Stream].” He added, “We are far away from putting [the pipeline] into operation.”
Earlier Tuesday, Germany said it was halting certification of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline following Moscow’s actions in eastern Ukraine on Monday. The 750-mile pipeline was completed in September but has not yet received final certification from German regulators. Without that, natural gas cannot flow through the Baltic Sea pipeline from Russia to Germany.
The United States, the United Kingdom, Ukraine and several EU countries have opposed the pipeline since it was announced in 2015, warning the project would increase Moscow’s influence in Europe.
Nord Stream 2 could deliver 55 billion cubic meters of gas per year. That’s more than 50% of Germany’s annual consumption and could be worth as much as $15 billion to Gazprom, the Russian state owned company that controls the pipeline.
Speaking Tuesday evening, Scholz said what happened this week has been “a great disappointment.” He said, “Putin has built up enough troops along the Ukrainian borders to really be able to fully invade the country.”
The chancellor said he believes the Russian president “actually intends to change some of Europe’s geography and that is very threatening.”
Pointing out that Europeans had agreed on not changing the borders again, Scholz said, “Who is looking back in history will find many borders that used to be different. If all of them will be discussed again, then we will have a very non-peaceful time ahead of us and therefore we have to come back to country’s sovereignty and borders that are not violated.”
“What Putin has done is a breach of international law that we cannot and will not accept,” Scholz added.
CNN’s Charles Riley and Julia Horowitz contributed reporting to this post.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday that “the door to diplomacy still remains open,” with Russia, even as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced he’d no longer meet with his Russian counterpart following the administration’s conclusion that Russian aggression into neighboring Ukraine constituted an invasion.
“As I think our secretary of state conveyed, it isn’t the appropriate time, as Russia is taking escalatory steps and preparing to invade, for him to meet with the foreign minister,” Psaki told CNN’s MJ Lee, adding that any summit with US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin was only agreed to in principle, “but there were never any specific plans or timeline really in the works for that.”
In remarks from the US State Department Tuesday, Blinken announced he’d no longer meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Geneva this week, the latest sign that diplomatic avenues with Russia over Ukraine are quickly closing.
According to Blinken, he sent a letter to Lavrov Tuesday to inform him of the decision.
Moving forward, Psaki said, the US remains open to diplomacy in concert with European partners “once, if and when, [Russia] deescalate.”
The President, she added, is “always going to be open to having leader to leader conversations, but this isn’t the time to do it, when, and we said this at the time as well, when they are, when President Putin is overseeing the invasion of a sovereign country.”
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmitry Kuleba said Tuesday that Russian President Vladimir Putin can still be stopped if Ukraine and its allies “act in a very reserved way and keep mounting pressure on” the Russian leader.
“What stops him is only our unity and resolve. And we can stop him,” Kuleba said at a news conference in Washington, urging the pressure against Russia should “continue to be stepped up.”
He said that Ukraine doesn’t have any plans to evacuate Mariupol — a port city located in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine.
“We have two plans. Plan A is to utilize every tool of diplomacy to deter Russia and prevent further escalation. And if that fails, Plan B is to fight for every inch of our land, and every city and every village. Then, to fight until we win, of course,” Kuleba said.
He went on to call the latest US sanctions against Russia announced Tuesday “specific” and “painful” for Moscow.
Responding to a question from a reporter asking “if what we’ve seen so far is a minor invasion […] and it only warrants lesser US sanctions,” Kuleba said: “There is no such thing as minor, middle or major invasion. Invasion is an invasion.”
The foreign minister said that Ukraine becoming a NATO member is a choice of the people of Ukraine, adding that “no one but Ukraine and NATO will decide on the future of our relationship.”
“It has never been about NATO for Putin. It’s just an excuse. Even if you do nothing, President Putin will find a reason to accuse us of doing something,” he continued.
Calling Ukraine a country that exists in a “security vacuum,” he said Kyiv “did a lot to strengthen global security by abandoning” its nuclear arsenal.
“That was a huge contribution. And we expect the principle of reciprocity and equally huge contribution to ensuring Ukraine security,” he added.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s remarks confirm that “his plan all along has been to invade Ukraine,” and that Russia’s issue with NATO has just been “an excuse to mask the fact that what this is about is President Putin’s view that Ukraine is not a sovereign country.”
“Now that we’ve heard it directly from President Putin himself, it confirms what we’ve been saying: that he did not send more than 150,000 troops to the Ukrainian border because of benign military exercises, or to respond to threatened aggression from Ukraine, or to stop a fabricated genocide by Ukraine or any other manufactured reason,” Blinken said at a joint news conference with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba.
Blinken said that Russia “hasn’t been serious to date” with its pursuit of diplomacy to resolve the crisis it created, but that despite the “renewed Russian invasion,” the US and its partners would still be open to diplomacy “to the extent that there is anything we can do to avert an even worse case scenario, an all-out assault on all of Ukraine.”
“President Putin’s deeply disturbing speech yesterday, and his statements today, made clear to the world how he views Ukraine: not as a sovereign nation with the right to territorial integrity and independence, but rather as a creation of Russia, and therefore subordinate to Russia,” said Blinken.
Blinken added, “this has never been about Ukraine and NATO per se,” and that Putin’s real goal is “reconstituting the Russian empire, or short of that, a sphere of influence, or short of that, the total neutrality of countries surrounding Russia.”
“This is the greatest threat to security in Europe since World War II,” Blinken added.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba urged the world Tuesday to “hit” the Russian economy “hard” for its “new act of aggression against Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
“The world must respond with all its economic might to punish Russia for the crimes it has already committed, and ahead of the crimes it plans to commit,” Kuleba said while speaking alongside US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at a joint press conference in Washington. “Hit Russia’s economy now and hit it hard,” he added.
While welcoming the latest US sanctions against Russia, Kuleba added that “Ukraine strongly believes the time for sanctions is now.”
“We are at a critical juncture for the security of Europe, as well as the international peace and security more broadly,” he continued.
On the topic of Moscow recognizing the independence of two pro-Russian separatist regions in eastern Ukraine, Kuleba said his country “does not and will never recognize this absurdity.”
Kuleba argued that what Putin “recognized is his direct responsibility for the war against Ukraine and an unprovoked and unjustified war on another sovereign state in Europe, which Russia now intensifies.”
Kuleba went on to blame Putin for “attacking the world order” with his latest actions.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Tuesday that his nation has two plans: diplomacy, and if that fails, fighting to defend themselves.
“Plan A is to utilize every tool of diplomacy to deter Russia and prevent further escalation,” Kuleba said at a news conference alongside US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the US State Department.
“And if that fails, plan B is to fight for every inch of our land, in every city and every village – to fight until we win, of course,” he said.
Kuleba said Ukraine has no plans to evacuate Mariupol and Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine.