Vladimir Putin, befuddled

Cyber strikes, cable cutting and 'turning off the taps': how Russia could harm the UK

Following the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal and his daughter, which left a number of other people hospitalised, Britain must take a clear-eyed look at its vulnerabilities to future attack.

After the outrage come the questions. What next? What’s in the pipeline (literally perhaps?) from Vladimir Putin’s Russia?

Since joining E&T just over a year ago, I have written about Russian cyber hostilities around the world with a dispiriting regularity. Every few weeks I have sat down to type out another story about strikes on European electricity grids, threats to undersea fibre-optic carrying cables or evidence of meddling in elections.

Warnings from politicians and securocrats that Putin could order a knock-out blow on British power stations and supply networks or could cripple the NHS with malware have seemed paranoid and overdone at times. They appear markedly less so following the release of the Novichok nerve agent in a quiet Wiltshire city on 4 March: the first offensive use of a nerve agent on European soil since World War Two.

This incident was of a different order of magnitude to the kinds of actions of which Russia is normally accused. It is a gravely serious situation that requires a clear-eyed response. Even compared with other murderous attacks carried out on Putin’s enemies, the Salisbury incident has quickly come to mark a new low in Anglo-Russian affairs. But in reality the release of Novichok should be seen for what it is - just part of a continuum, a consistent pattern of misbehaviour that Britain and others have shamefully turned a blind eye to in the past in the vain hope that it might go away. We know from history that appeasement is only likely to lead to even worse acts by rogue states. Russia’s behaviour cannot be tolerated.

Worse acts like what, though? More cyberattacks, for one thing. Ciaran Martin, head of the National Cyber Security Centre, has already suggested a ‘Category One’ cyber assault on the National Grid is now probably inevitable, with Russia considered to be a prime contender to launch just such a move. To be clear, an attack like this would almost certainly entail fatalities. It could indirectly cause “thousands and thousands” of deaths, according to the defence secretary. Numerous military insiders have pleaded the case for properly preparing for such a scenario, but at the start of this year, when I asked several Whitehall departments what advice officials had for UK residents about how to survive Russian bombardment of our grid, I received no reply. Not exactly reassuring.

Escalating tensions now require the government to be straight with its people and prepare them for the worst. The minimum the government could do is issue some advice about how to survive a serious cyber siege, however much that might scare people. They do it for terrorism, so why not this? 

To most people, losing electricity means simply ‘the lights going out’ or not being able to use Facebook, but remember that the implications are in fact far broader and more frightening. The precedent is Ukraine, where anti-virus software companies and critical infrastructure firms warn Russia has been flexing its malware muscles by inveigling its way into the computerised systems controlling substation switches and circuit breakers. To what end? Who knows. It is probably no coincidence that there have been a series of cyber attacks on US energy firms this week.

Nick Hunn, an electricity network expert, told me Britain’s grid was “extremely vulnerable” and, once successfully hit, could potentially stay down for a considerable time, disabling petrol pumps, the water supply and food supply chains. That would result in a siege-like situation of a kind not seen since the Blitz.

“What would London be like without electricity for three months?” Hunn said last year. “We now have some answers to that question coming out of Iraq and Syria, and it’s not pretty.”

Of course, we don’t just have to sit back and take the blows. The UK is rumoured to be developing its own cyber-weapons and could potentially deploy these offensively against an enemy if under attack, or even strike pre-emptively if that were deemed necessary. Many believe prevention is the best medicine and have suggested that there may now be a strong case for developing a nationwide UK internet firewall akin to the 'Great Firewall of China'. That would prompt civil liberties concerns but it may ultimately be required if the cyber threat is as great as many seem to fear.

There is also the possibility of further attempts to murder Russian defectors or dissidents on the streets of Britain in the near future. Gangster regimes thrive on the perception that they can act with impunity. The Salisbury incident was hardly the first of its kind, which helps explain why there has been such utter disbelief from across the political spectrum at Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s eagerness to give Putin the benefit of the doubt and his apparent distaste for Nato. I won’t dignify the various conspiracy theories about the Salisbury case with any airtime here, but suffice to say I trust the government and security services on this one.

In terms of policing, in the immediate term it may be wise to review all options for surveillance and to expedite the deployment of cutting-edge data analytics to keep suspected future targets in Britain safe from harm.

In the longer term, the UK needs to become less reliant on Russia for gas imports. Already Britain is far less hooked on Russian gas than are many other European countries (and is more committed to Nato and European defence than many), though the situation is complicated by the fact that BP holds a significant stake in Russian oil and gas giant Rosneft. Large numbers of homes in the UK are heated by gas boilers. We are apparently about to hit another cold snap, and concerns have been aired that Russia could 'turn off the taps'.

Ideally, the UK should be self-sufficient for its energy needs. As unpalatable as it may seem to some environmental campaigners, fracking gas may be the best option for securing energy security. Yes, it’s fossil fuel, but it’s far less polluting than others, and it could be combined with a policy of expanding state investment in those renewables that have been proven to be effective. As unfashionable as it is to say it, in times of geopolitical crisis environmental concerns might sometimes have to take a back seat. Anyway, it seems hypocritical for the UK to be importing gas from abroad to avoid fracking for it at home.

I sincerely hope the nightmare scenarios detailed above prove in future to have been nothing but wild hysteria. I dearly wish that in years from now we can look back at this period in our history and laugh about how wrong we were about Russia and how carried away we all got by what happened in Salisbury. In short, I hope I, and all those fearful about future Russian acts against Britain, are wrong.

For now, there are basic issues of personal and national self-preservation to consider. Technology will play a key role in any new Cold War, and the government must explore all options to keep its people safe.

Recent articles

Info Message

Our sites use cookies to support some functionality, and to collect anonymous user data.

Learn more about IET cookies and how to control them