Russia may launch devastating cyber attacks on the West as tensions with Ukraine threaten to boil over, experts fear.
It comes as it was revealed NATO jets – many of them RAF warplanes – scrambled almost 300 times against Moscow’s aircraft this year.
America and Russia are due to hold security talks in mid-January to confront the Ukraine crisis with more than 100,000 Russian troops close to the border with Ukraine.
Regular Russian forces are known to be bolstering pro-Russian separatists on a 250 mile frontline inside Ukraine in contested Donetsk and Luhansk.
But experts believe if President Vladimir Putin’s demands for NATO to back off from Russia’s borders he will first order “non-lethal” attacks against Ukraine and the West.
At the same time more regular Russian troops could enter Ukraine in the Donetsk region, further bolstering the separatists – or could launch a full-scale invasion.
A former British military intelligence officer told the Daily Mirror: “By their very nature cyber attacks are deniable and can be seen as non-lethal.
“However, apart from crippling defence, energy, business, finance and emergency service infrastructure – all of which can cause deaths, they can be absolutely devastating.
“It fits with Russia’s hybrid warfare ethos – using both direct and indirect conflict to attack and undermine the enemy and it is very likely Moscow will use this.”
NATO has admitted 290 of around 370 total air missions were flown in 2021 in response to the activities of Russian aircraft.
Most of those took place in the Baltic region around Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, where the organisation has an air-policing operation.
U.S. and Russian officials will hold security talks on Jan. 10 to discuss Ukraine.
Russia has denied plans for a full-on assault but it wants legally-binding guarantees NATO will not expand further eastwards.
It is feared Russia will invent a pretext for an attack – such as launching an invasion supposedly in defence of proi-Russian population in East Ukraine.
Former MOD arms control director Paul Schulte added: “Russia has already launched lesser false narratives against Ukraine, including accusing its leaders of Nazism. These would be to provide Moscow with pretexts for retaliation.”
The U.S. administration has promised economic sanctions if Russia attacks Ukraine and has hit back that it cannot promise Ukraine would never join NATO.
Russia expert Bruce Jones commented, “If the Kremlin does not receive positive indications on its security ultimatums,, it would start delivering unattributable, less-than-lethal measures, including highly targeted cyber attacks and major disinformation spoofs against the West, to make us make up our minds.“
U.S. President Joe Biden on Monday signed into law a massive spending bill that will provide more than £250 million to support Ukraine’s armed forces.
Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014 and backed a pro-Russian separatist uprising in the east of the country that has killed 15,000 people.