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Russia's cyber restraint is surprising, expert says

EVANSTON, Ill. — V.S. Subrahmanian, a Northwestern Buffett Faculty Fellow and a global cybersecurity expert, said that the Russians have so far shown more restraint than expected in cyber space, but that doesn’t rule out the fact that they have a lot more heavy hitting to bring to the table down the road. That could also be explained by effective cyber defense on the part of the Ukrainians and their corporate and government partners, he added.

Professor Subrahmanian and others are available to speak with media and explain various aspects of the ongoing information warfare, including the possibility of a splintering internet. They can be reached by contacting Mohamed Abdelfattah at

Russia’s cyber playbook

Said Subrahmanian: “The Russian playbook in cyberattacks consists of two main elements: hacking and social media influence campaigns. On hacking, they have not been as impressive as I had feared. And their social media campaigns seem to be not very well-executed. For example, some of their fake videos were easily debunked using simple instruments, like a metadata analysis. But we should also recognize that over the last 10 years, they’ve injected a large amount of malware into Ukrainian networks. We know from past Russian attacks on the U.S. Government and sophisticated U.S. corporations that they have both the capability and experience. We simply don’t know how much of the malware they have injected into Ukrainian networks has been activated. My opinion based on the long history of Russian cyberattacks is that they have not even come close to using the full extent of their cyberwarfare capabilities and that all defenders need to be on high alert.”

Moscow’s information warfare

Erik Nisbet is Owen L. Coon Endowed Professor of Policy Analysis and Communication at the School of Communication. His research lies at the intersection of communication, public opinion and public policy in the areas of science, technology and environmental policy. He also studies governance and elections, and international security.

Said Nisbet: “Russian information warfare in the Ukraine conflict has two fronts. On the domestic front, over the last 10 years Putin’s regime has created an almost impenetrable information bubble around the Russian public through direct and indirect control of the news media and closing the internet and social media to alternative information through legal, technical and psychological means. This domestic information warfare includes silencing those who may express opinions contrary to the regime’s interests through arrests, physical intimidation and economic deprivation such as loss of employment. 

“On the global front, Russia has created a web of overtly state-sponsored propaganda news outlets and shadow websites that covertly amplify its narratives online. In response to the invasion of Ukraine, the EU and private companies such as Meta, Google, Twitter and Direct TV, have taken steps to limit Russia’s propaganda in Europe and the United States – but Russia’s propaganda machine remains unimpeded in Eastern Europe outside of the EU and in other regions of the world such as Latin America. For example, news stories from Russia’s state-sponsored propaganda outlet are still receiving over a half million likes, shares and comments every day on Facebook and Twitter even after the EU has de-platformed it from social media and Twitter has labeled it as state media.”

Worrying internet restrictions

Randall Berry is the John A. Dever Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Northwestern’s McCormick. 

Said Berry: “This reflects an age-old aspect of warfare, namely a battle to control the narrative about the conflict. Today, the internet is at the heart of how such information is controlled. The design aspirations of the Internet embrace an open and distributed network in which every device on the network can connect with any device in the world without any single central authority that controls the network. The Ukraine conflict is adding to a growing trend of governments around the world trying to place restrictions on the internet, e.g. to block users within their country from connecting to certain applications such as Facebook or Twitter. These trends have raised concerns about the internet becoming fragmented into a ‘splinternet’ that consists of multiple nation islands, each of which has access to different content.”