The very real risk of Russian cyber-attacks on the West’s energy infrastructure

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As Russia invades Ukraine against the condemnation of the global community, fears of further Russian aggression are not limited to physical attacks. As Moscow struggles under the weight of economic sanctions, experts fear Russia will lash out with one of its most powerful weapons: the internet. The threat of a Russian cyber-attack isn’t just imminent – it could already happen.

Even before Russian troops crossed the border into Ukraine, the Harvard Business Review was already… warning of the potential of “a new wave of cyber attacks on Ukrainian and Western energy, financial and communications infrastructure.” The forward-looking editorial also warned that sanctions would not deter Russian cyberwarfare, but would only fuel the Kremlin’s fire. The European Central Bank (ECB) has even warned European financial institutions that sanctions will be seen by Putin as economic warfare and will almost certainly lead to an aggressive response.

“Conflict in Ukraine presents perhaps the most acute cyber risk American and Western companies have once had to deal with it,” the Harvard Business Review report states. “Russia will not stand by, but will instead respond asymmetrically using its significant cyber capabilities.” A Russian cyberattack could jeopardize entire global supply chains, leaving entire economies vulnerable and threatening consumers at a time when inflation and the cost of living are already skyrocketing.

Few sectors will lose as much from the conflict in Ukraine as the energy sector. The European Union depends on Russia for more than a third of its natural gas supply, and Germany gets a full 50% of its LNG from the disputed country. As Europe tries to hit Russia where it hurts, world leaders are hesitant to punish energy. While energy sanctions would be the quickest and strongest punishment for the Kremlin, the punishment would be equally swift and strong for European consumers. That’s why Europe is quickly trying to reduce its reliance on Russian fossil fuels to keep the lights on.

Just last week Germany ordered €1.5 billion worth of non-Russian liquefied natural gas and announced it would slow its exit from coal in an effort to diversify its energy mix and strengthen the nation’s independence in energy security so it can withdraw from Russian LNG. In Germany’s new energy plan, every bit of German-made energy is as good as gold. And so Russia strikes back where it hurts, attacking the country’s renewable energy industry.

And last Tuesday, a satellite cyber attack paralyzed German wind turbines worth 11 gigawatts and shut down a communications system also used for solar photovoltaics. The attack almost certainly came from Russian troops. The outage occurred between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. on Thursday, as Russian troops flooded the Ukrainian border.

While targeting German renewables sends a strong message, it may have been collateral damage from an attack that targeted the German military more specifically. The attack was not on the wind turbines themselves, but on the KA-Sat communications satellite that the industry relies on. US military communications also run on such satellites, which are owned by Viasat. While the impact of this attack was limited, it is a warning of the massive and often unpredictable ripple effects of even the most targeted cyberattacks and the fragility of our energy networks.

The German Federal Office for Information Security has activated the national IT crisis center. According to PV Magazine, “Federal governments, critical infrastructure operators, organizations and businesses have been advised ‘to increase vigilance and responsiveness'”.

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com

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