Vladimir Putin’s latest escalation has hit far too close to home

Article published in The Daily Telegraph, 28 June 2024. © Richard Kemp

Russian hackers have caused chaos in the NHS and put patients in danger. This month, one of the most serious cyber attacks we have ever faced hit London hospitals and GP surgeries by locking pathology service providers out of their own IT systems. This has forced more than 1,100 operations to be postponed, including cancer treatments and organ transplants. Thousands of outpatient appointments have been cancelled and vast numbers of patients’ records stolen, some of which have been published on the dark web. They include results of blood tests for cancer and HIV.

Make no mistake. This is a terrorist attack on the UK, which has already resulted in widespread suffering and may cause deaths.

The hackers, who call themselves Qilin, operate out of Russia. They were first known to be active in 2022 and their activities have so far been thought to be criminal, using cyber attacks to extort large sums of cash from their victims. But Qilin claim they carried out this attack – in which a £40 million ransom was demanded – over Britain’s role in an unspecified war.

That may or may not be the motive, but it is far from implausible. Vladimir Putin seeks to create chaos in the West, to undermine support for Ukraine by demonstrating the high costs of that support. He has reportedly recruited criminal gangs to carry out sabotage against Western factories supplying arms to Ukraine, including cyber attacks. We have already seen indications of such action in Britain, the US, Germany and Poland.

Links between freelance hackers and Russian intelligence services have been growing since the 2022 invasion. It is possible Qilin is run and directed by one of the Kremlin’s agencies, and that it is provided with encouragement, information and technology. As a minimum, Russian law enforcement are turning a blind eye on these cyber gangs. For that, Putin is culpable.

It must be a priority to shut down Qilin, which has expanded into the largest Russian enterprise of its kind. That won’t be easy, although the National Crime Agency did manage to inflict serious disruption on another large-scale ransomware gang this year.

We need to go further in dealing with such an attack on our country. Unless we respond vigorously to this sort of aggression, we will face continuing escalation. Our relative inaction in the face of a nerve agent attack on British soil in 2018 helped solidify Putin’s impression of Western weakness. This may well have contributed to his calculations on invading Ukraine.

Words of outrage are not enough. In a face-to-face meeting in 2021, Joe Biden warned Putin against cyber attacks on critical US national infrastructure. That was ignored, and we have seen numerous attacks since on American facilities, including hospitals.

We should certainly be considering retaliatory cyber attacks, not against Russian hospitals but against military targets and armaments factories. But the most immediate and effective step we can take is to demonstrate to Putin that aggression against our country will have the opposite effect to what he intends, by ramping up our supply of long-range weapons. Not only should we allow President Zelensky to use them against Russian soil, but we should encourage him, and provide the intelligence to help with targeting. Only then might Putin get the message.

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