Joe Biden has warned a Russian cyber attack on the US is coming and told business executives it is their “patriotic obligation” to strengthen their digital defences.
“Today my administration issued new warnings that based on evolving intelligence Russia may be planning a cyber attack against us,” the president said at a meeting on Monday with members of the Business Roundtable, a large corporate lobbying organisation.
“The magnitude of Russian cyber capacity is fairly consequential, and it’s coming.”
Biden issued his warning as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine entered its 26th day with Russian forces still struggling to take control of big cities.
The president told attendees that he had held what he called an “altar call” with Russian president Vladimir Putin where he had laid out what the US response would be if Moscow were to launch cyber operations against the American government or companies, as he has warned it is likely to do.
Despite this conversation, the president said his officials had evidence that the Kremlin might be about to launch an attack. “I would respectfully suggest it is a patriotic obligation to invest as much as you can” in digital security, he told the executives.
Businesses and government officials have said for several weeks that they expect Russia to launch cyber attacks alongside its assault on Ukraine, but so far they say they have not detected an increase in such action.
Jonathan Pruzan, Morgan Stanley’s chief operating officer, told a conference last week: “To be frank, I think people are surprised that more hasn’t happened.”
Theresa Payton, a former White House chief information officer who is now chief executive of cyber security consultancy Fortalice Solutions, said her contacts with clients and warnings issued by US agencies suggested that classified briefings were held last week with companies and infrastructure operators to discuss potential cyber attacks emanating from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Some believe criminal gangs may soon get involved. Valerie Abend, Accenture’s global financial services security lead, said recent chatter on online forums used by criminals suggested underworld organisations that typically conduct cyber attacks for money were poised to take sides in the war between Russia and Ukraine.
“You have these very sophisticated threat-actor groups who used to do cyber attacks for financial gain, and now they are saying they are going to use their capabilities for a pro-Russian stance or a pro-Ukrainian stance,” she said. “There has also been chatter in these groups around a willingness and interest in targeting critical infrastructure.”
“These attacks might start out targeting one particular entity and they can quickly spread,” she said. “That is very concerning. We have an ecosystem that is very interconnected and critical infrastructure that is highly dependent on internet facing systems.”
During Monday’s meeting, Biden said he was pleased to see large American multinationals “stepping up and doing their part both in terms of donating to Ukraine and winding down [their] operations [in Russia] without anybody requesting it”.
The executives invited to Monday’s White House briefing spanned a range of industries and sectors, representing companies including Cargill, ExxonMobil, JPMorgan Chase, US Steel and Visa.
The president’s outreach comes amid growing evidence that businesses are feeling the effects of the war and the subsequent sanctions. Many of the largest US companies have joined a corporate exodus from Russia, where western brands have suspended, closed or cut operations.
An economic outlook index released by the BRT on Monday fell nine points to 115 between December and March, as chief executives lowered their expectations for sales, capital spending and hiring over the next six months. The quarterly survey also showed the chiefs had cut their projection for US gross domestic product growth this year from 7 per cent to 3.9 per cent.
The reading from a 175-CEO poll largely conducted before the most deadly phase of Russia’s attack on Ukraine was still one of the strongest in the index’s 15-year history, but signalled growing uncertainty at the top of some of the world’s largest companies.