Hacking The Russian Mainframe

The NYT has reported that US cyberwar unit has placed malware in Russia’s electric grid that could potentially shut it down. It also alleges that Trump has been kept out of the loop on this decision.

My short take is that this is a nothingburger aimed primarily at US domestic consumption.

We know that there is a self-styled “Resistance” within USG that is going all out to sabotage Trump, especially on anything to do with Russia. This was obviously an intentional leak, and meant to underscore the point that Trump is too unreliable to be trusted with national security decisions – as well as too incompetent to stop patriotic seasoned professionals from doing what they must to check Putler.

Obviously, I am not in a position to know whether or not the US has actually inserted said malware onto Russia’s electric grid. It is certainly a lucrative target, since it is in the midst of a $25 billion digitalization drive over the next six years. But there is reason to be skeptical over its potential to shut down a modern industrial economy. One can always shift it over into manual control in an emergency, as happened in the Western Ukraine during an alleged Russian attack in December 2015. Power was only cut off for a few hours. This could be ruinous if Russia hosted many companies that produced things such as semiconductors, where even momentary losses of power can ruin entire batches. But Russia is not Taiwan or South Korea. It doesn’t have many such manufactories.

Meanwhile, the single most serious accusation that Russia had penetrated the US electric grid with malware boiled down to one laptop belonging to the Vermont electric utility company having been infected with a virus similar to those used by Russian hackers. That this example of literal fake news was the single biggest story about Russia “compromising” the US electric grid strongly suggests that Russia does not view it as a worthwhile strategic priority.

The NYT even suggests that a cyberattack on Russia’s electric grid might not only “plunge [it] into darkness,” but also “cripple its military.” The latter idea is so mind-numbingly stupid that it amounts to additional support for the theory that this was an exclusively domestic political play.

Anatoly Karlin is a transhumanist interested in psychometrics, life extension, UBI, crypto/network states, X risks, and ushering in the Biosingularity.


Inventor of Idiot’s Limbo, the Katechon Hypothesis, and Elite Human Capital.


Apart from writing booksreviewstravel writing, and sundry blogging, I Tweet at @powerfultakes and run a Substack newsletter.


  1. Please keep off topic posts to the current Open Thread.

    If you are new to my work, start here.

  2. The United States government, laying the groundwork for an eventual assault on the Russian electric grid. I don’t know, that sounds like an act of war to me. Do they imagine that the Russians (with eager Chinese help) could not do at least as much damage to us? Our government is controlled by reckless maniacs.

  3. … this is a nothingburger aimed primarily at US domestic consumption.

    Of course. Low end of it.

    ….there is reason to be skeptical over its potential to shut down a modern industrial economy.


    ….The latter idea is so mind-numbingly stupid…

    It is.

  4. Anonymoose says

    One of the few ways I can think of to take out a nation wide electric grid system is detonating powerful EMP. Hacking can at most take down a few power plants. Not to mention there is probably more than one electric power grid in any one country. Also why are you citing snopes? That story about Russia hacking the American electric grid was bullshit but I’m sure there are better sources for that than snopes.

  5. Felix Keverich says

    I don’t think this is nothingburger. FWTW American govt now publicly admits to engaging in cyberterrorism. You don’t see such admissions very often. I think this gives credence to the theory that disastrous Venezuela blackouts earlier in the year were caused by American cyberattacks – entire country lost power for days amidst a major regime change push.

  6. “… story about Russia “compromising” the US electric grid strongly suggests that Russia does not view it as a worthwhile strategic priority.”

    They should, though. Look what happened when the power went off in New Orleans back during Katrina: mass chaos, looting, city-wide destruction. Imagine if the power went off in Detroit, Cincinnati, and Baltimore for a week. Selectively targeting the American power grid could lead to mass civil unrest in poor, ethnically diverse (heavily African) metropolitan areas. I think this kind of pressure could easily help bring the United States to the bargaining table in the advent of war between Russia and the USA. That’s a tool they should, if they were smart, be considering – although only as something like a last resort before a serious conflict. Although, it doesn’t surprise me that the Russians wouldn’t get this. Their efforts to understand the domestic political situation in the United States strikes me as inept; same with the Chinese.

    I think this lashing out by the Empire is more of a projection of deepstate insecurities onto the Russians as they must be aware of their relative vulnerability on the issue: Russia can survive a week without power but the US would plunge into mass chaos as any other ethnically diverse, fragile society would. I agree with most of the Trump stuff. I think it’s possible that the leak was meant to throw off the dogs, so to speak, concerning this investigation into the origin of Russiagate. Considering what the FBI was just caught doing to 8chan*, I think it’s entirely possible they similarly concocted a BS story as a justification for illicitly spying on Donald Trump’s campaign; nothing about their story and chain of events makes sense to me. Further, I also think these people are buffoons, so there is an irony here in that they consider Trump the same. Pot/kettle.

    *FBI guy posted comments on the 8chan message board and then used that in court documents, implying that others had made the comments, as a means of instigating a dragnet. He was unaware that said documents proved he was the poster.

  7. Anonymous says

    The article references Russian efforts ongoing since the Obama administration. There are no specifics of course, just like there aren’t any specifics regarding the US efforts towards Russia; it’s generalizations, innuendo and speculation all the way around.

    This “revelation” seems to have mostly passed over the US unnoticed, but to the extent it provoked a reaction I don’t think it was the reaction the leakers intended. David Frum–who’s about as strongly anti-Trump as you get for a mainstream commentator–pointed out that unelected government and military officials doing offensive actions more-or-less independently and possibly in contravention of the wishes of the Executive is not exactly kosher. Frum is also opposing any strikes against Iran, which for a former neocon is a remarkable thing. Right now there aren’t a lot of warm sentiments towards the military-industrial complex from either side of the aisle.

  8. Whether it is feasible to take down power grid with some malware I do not know but certainly taking out power grid for several days would be a major disaster. More for the US than Russia however. I remember 2003 outage in the Northeast and it was pretty horrible in NYC because it was very hot.


    In 2016 when Russia angle was taken in the anti-Trump offensive at some point they floated news about attack on power grid in Vermont or New Hampshire but several weeks before that I remember seeing an article saying that malware was being injected into Russian system, so pretty much the same what NYT claims now but it was under Obama then. Accusations are often projections and admissions might be disinformation just as AK says.

    If the ‘terrorists’ really wanted to hurt us blowing up critical parts of the power grid would be the way to go. You would need several two person teams with very little explosive each and SUV to get to right places. And if the ‘terrorist’ had backing of some state sponsor they could get right intelligence which places to hit to cause cascading avalanche shut down effect. The attack would be much less spectacular and could not be shown on TV like 9/11 but in longer run would be much more effective and would demoralize people more by turning them against each other.

  9. reiner Tor says

    American govt now publicly admits to engaging in cyberterrorism

    Except it doesn’t. It’s the always reliable New York Times. The story also says it’s in response to lots of ongoing Russian activities.

    But maybe it’d be worth demanding an explanation from the American ambassador.

  10. Fran Macadam says

    When you empower an unaccountable “Deep State” with secret surveillance powers, above ground government accountable to the people is disenfranchised, and that becomes the real government. Even in eastern countries once under communism, governments recognized that their secret police could not be controlled once unleashed, and in fact had power over them. As the famous Nazi pointed out, “It works the same in every country,” regardless of system of government. It’s become apparent that the various western secret police agencies, the famous “Five Eyes” particularly, set the policies together that their various national governments are forced to follow.

    Hence, the hostility to and the regime change operation set against a loose cannon like Trump, who doesn’t pay them the deference their underhandedness has earned.

  11. Anonymoose says

    The story is almost certainly bullshit. American gov’t hasn’t made an announcement. But then who are these mysterious ‘officials’ who peddled this story. that’s saying something about them if they’re not just a bunch of made up characters.

  12. reiner Tor says

    The story is almost certainly untrue, but it was printed out in the most important paper of record in the country. So you can still demand an explanation from the government.

  13. Felix Keverich says

    NYT says it vetted its story with officials in Trump admin before publishing it. In other words, American government admits to cyberterrorism.

    Perhaps, US officials are too daft to realise that planting malicious software in Russia’s power grid amounts to terrorism, but it is what it is.

  14. Felix Keverich says

    Think about it: why would Trump accuse NYT of “treason” if what they said isn’t true? Newspapers can only commit treason by leaking state secrets.

  15. What are you trying to say with muh semiconductors passage? Foundries are always backed-up on power, if not double backed-up, that`s why the whole Samsung story was suspect from the start.

    Hell, in Russia even big METRO stores have a backup power on standby as a rule.

  16. reiner Tor says

    If you believe it to be true, I have a Russiagate to sell you real cheap.

  17. This is retarded whether it’s true or false. There is signal value in a visible arms buildup. There is no signal value in an action which might or might not have occurred and may result in unknown levels of damage (anywhere from risible to crippling) in a “low intensity war” scenario – and for which an attack is not necessarily distinguishable from an accident. It makes things very unpredictable. Does anyone still do Game Theory?

    What’s the rational response to that kind of “Softwar” scenario? Start offing key IT personnel on US streets, Israeli-style?

    Robert Bridge has a take on this at RT:


    Back to the Times article. There seems to be another reason behind the dubious story aside from sowing discord between two nuclear powers. Pathetic as it may sound, it once again boils down to domestic political brinkmanship in the United States. In yet another apparent attempt to destroy Trump’s reputation, the Times mentioned in the report that the US leader had been left in the dark as US intelligence agents wreaked havoc against Russia’s power grid.

    Quoting two anonymous administration officials, the Times reported that “intelligence officials described broad hesitation to go into detail with Mr. Trump about operations against Russia for concern over his reaction — and the possibility that he might countermand it or discuss it with foreign officials, as he did in 2017 when he mentioned a sensitive operation in Syria to the Russian foreign minister.”

    It would be hard to top that paragraph as far as anti-Trump screeds go. Not only does Trump have no idea what is happening inside of his own administration, as the report insinuates, but his intelligence officials don’t trust him with sensitive information. And the claim about Trump discussing a “sensitive operation in Syria” with Lavrov is laughable and was roundly rejected by officials in the room during the meeting. Once again, facts mean very little to outlets like the Times when it comes to reporting on their favorite antagonists, Russia and Trump, and even less as the critical 2020 presidential elections loom large on the horizon.

    Tragically and possibly catastrophically, Russia now finds itself in the middle of this partisan passion play between the Democrats and Republicans. Although Moscow has genuinely behaved as the adult in the room throughout the entire ‘Russiagate’ hysteria, the latest incendiary piece by the Times has all the potential to do real damage to the bilateral relationship, or what’s left of it.

    At the very least, the entire world should cross its fingers and hope that nothing untoward happens to the Russian power grid, accidentally or otherwise, because many people will fervently believe they already know the identity of the culprit.

    Remember the Bloomberg’s revelation about Hollywood-tier spy chips in Supermicro motherboards of last year. Complete bullshit but it yielded a fat & hot media storm. Where did that come from?

  18. for-the-record says

    Perhaps, US officials are too daft to realise that planting malicious software in Russia’s power grid amounts to terrorism

    But obviously not when it is the US, the exceptional country, doing it . . .


  19. I have to say, I had looked forward with a Trump White House to seeing struggles among the American power elite out in the open, to see who is really in charge. Did not expect it to be so pathetic..

  20. Yes, they do, but they are still extremely sensitive to any fluctuations in electricity supply. I remember a story about a few million dollars worth of losses for TSMC when electric power supply went out (or dropped, or surged – I need to look up the details) for less than a second.

  21. My guess is you have never looked at an actual voltage diagram during faults, shortages or auxiliary power supply activations.

  22. Did I mention to KEEP YOUR SCADA SYSTEMS OFF THE INTERNET (VPNs are not expensive and very productive or you can talk to your telecom provider for a dedicated connection) until you could unfuck yourself and actually build them securely and correctly (as opposed to clobbered together by recycled Masters of NPM).

  23. Anything of relevance about Venezuela?

    That “accident in the badly maintained infrastructure” was indeed suspiciously serendipitious.

  24. Did iranians keep it in a separate loop?

  25. Do production servers in any kind of sane business die when power goes out? No, because they are buffered through always-on IPSes. Same with foundries, who have to be even more stringent.

  26. Was it TSMC or Samsung? Maybe we are talking about the same thing…

  27. Thorfinnsson says

    Most semiconductor fabs aren’t vulnerable to grid disruption either. They generally have power conditioners (e.g. https://new.abb.com/ups/power-and-voltage-conditioners/voltage-conditioners/pcs100-avc-draft/highlights/models-for-pcs100-avc), uninterruptible power supplies, and backup generators.

    The semiconductor industry designs facility and capital equipment power protection to the SEMI F47 Standard: https://www.powerstandards.com/tutorials/what-is-semi-f47/

    Samsung went further and developed its own “Power Vaccine” standard which builds on top of this.

    The grid could plausibly be used to harm fabs in other ways however.

    The area of modern industry which is most vulnerable to grid disruption might be the cold storage chain. This would impact not just food and beverage processing, but also certain medical supplies.

  28. While the NYT story made a lot of news, forgotten are two things:

    1. In 2017 there was a brief story buried under a larger one in the Washington Post that the US was implanting malware in Russian infrastructure to cause “pain and discomfort” as needed. See https://mobile.twitter.com/LudWitt/status/878344750729908224

    Surprisingly this news was not amplified by even Russian sources like RT.

    1. In one of his final press conferences, Obama said that they would be taking actions against (alleged) Russian interference that would not be announced but Russia would know who did it. From https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2016/12/16/transcript-obamas-end-of-year-news-conference-on-syria-russian-hacking-and-more/

    “Our goal continues to be to send a clear message to Russia or others not to do this to us because we can do stuff to you, but it is also important for us to do that in a thoughtful, methodical way. Some of it, we do publicly. Some of it, we will do in a way that they know but not everybody will. And I know that there have been folks out there who suggests somehow that if we went out there and made big announcements and thumped our chests about a bunch of stuff, that somehow that would potentially spook the Russians.”