Russian hacks remind the free world it’s time to upgrade cybersecurity
On May 20, two pro-Moscow hacker groups, Killnet and Legion, launched a coordinated cyberattack against thousands of Italian websites. Targets included major transportation hubs and key government offices such as the Foreign and Defense Ministries.
Later that month, Killnet threatened to sue with “an irreparable blow” against Italy.
The big question is why? Russia has certainly increased the pace of its cyberattacks since its invasion of Ukraine. At the start of the war, he cyber-hammered the Kyiv government relentlessly.
Other countries have also witnessed malicious attacks, but why focus on Italy? While Rome has condemned the invasion and supports Ukraine’s self-defense efforts, it ranks far from the top of nations helping Kyiv.
Maybe the Russians thought Italy would be an easy target for their army of hackers. If so, they are greatly mistaken. Rome’s new National Cybersecurity Agency led a vigorous response, successfully repelling the worst Russian attacks.
Established in August 2021, the agency includes the IT Security Incident Response Team. Around the time Russian hackers were planning their Italian offensive, the agency released a forward-looking National Cybersecurity Strategy, which calls for 82 measures to be adopted by 2026. A significant part of the strategy is specifically devoted to protecting against and responding to cyber attacks.
Cyber warfare is fundamentally different from conventional warfare. This is not a war to be won; it is a condition to be endured. A system can be invulnerable one day, and a sitting duck the next. All it takes is a computer virus or a successful phishing attack.
China and Russia understand this. They have invested heavily in cyber warfare because they appreciate its potential to be a game-changer in the ongoing competition with the free world.
Don’t make a mistake. Presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping would like to (in the frankly honest vocabulary of Nikita Khrushchev) “bury” the free world. They would prefer a world without America, a world where Europe is weak, disorganized and distracted and where most other regions exist as supportive suburbs of Beijing and Moscow.
They employ many longstanding weapons in their fight against freedom: military, economic and diplomatic. But cyber is an important part of their arsenals. This allows them to engage in economic raids – like intellectual property theft and outright theft – as well as messing up opponents’ infrastructure and military operations.
Of all areas of cooperation between free nations, cyber action should be at the top of the agenda, and not just between national governments. The private sector, communities, law enforcement, the political community, academia, states and provinces all have a role to play.
There is some international connectivity, but there could and should be more. As many countries strive to remove internal institutional barriers to creating a more resilient cyber environment, the opportunity is also ripe for multilateral work.
The opportunities for fruitful cooperation extend beyond traditional NATO allies like Italy. The United States and India, for example, can create effective cyber tools to counter China’s aggression through cyber threats and digital authoritarianism. Cyber leaders from Romania and Estonia, working through EU and NATO centers respectively, are expected to establish intelligence exchanges and cyber relationships with like-minded countries in the EU. Indo-Pacific, such as South Korea (a nation recently admitted into NATO cyber collaboration).
Always seeking asymmetric advantages over the free world, autocrats and despots will continue to bet heavily on cyber warfare, espionage and information operations. Cooperative efforts among free nations and free peoples can create the connective cyber fabric, interoperability, and resilient critical infrastructure needed to maintain an effective multi-layered global cyber defense.
• Stefano Graziosi is an essayist and political analyst who writes for the Italian newspaper La Verita and the weekly Panorama. Dustin Carmack is a research fellow in cybersecurity, intelligence and emerging technologies at the Heritage Foundation. James Jay Carafano is Heritage’s Vice President of National Security and Foreign Relations Think Tank Research.