Covert cyber-warfare by Russian state-sponsored hackers may soon result in loss of life as Western countries continue to underestimate the Kremlin's hacking, propaganda and misinformation capabilities, according to Latvia's foreign minister Edgars Rinkēvičs.
He was speaking ahead of Zapad 2017, a week-long war game by Russian and Belarusian troops set to kick off on 14 September, warning that Moscow officials may attempt to exploit the exercise to test how it can perfect campaigns previously conducted in Ukraine and the US.
"What I am rather worried about is that this hidden cyber-warfare can escalate to a level [...] where we are not going to talk about bank attacks or ransom payments," Rinkēvičs said, as reported by The Telegraph. "At some point, people are going to die."
In December 2015, experts concluded Moscow likely played a role in widespread power cuts in Ukraine.
"If you get security systems down or hospitals left without power, then I am afraid that such kind of activity could provoke a very real military build-up," Rinkēvičs added. "My concern is that at some point, we are going to detect that there have been casualties because of cyberattacks."
The Guardian reported that the Latvian minister, during a diplomatic trip to London this week, took time to speak out about Russia's ability to abuse social media. "If you have hacking, fake news with a purpose, it is very difficult to react. We can find out what happened, but it is very difficult to prove. The whole law in this area needs addressing."
Zapad 2017 will imagine conflict with armed groups backed by fictional enemies. Russian officials say it will include roughly 10,000 troops, with 3,000 entering Belarus. Yet as The Guardian noted, critics believe that it may be intended to simulate a siege on Poland and Lithuania.
Rinkēvičs claimed that, in reality, up to 100,000 troops in total are likely be involved.
Ukrainian state media, citing an armed forces chief called Viktor Muzhenko, reported on 2 September (Saturday) that the scale and timing of the operation indicated that "the drill's true aim, goals and objectives [...] are only part of and provide a cover-up for the actual plans".
But this has been denied by Moscow.
Rinkēvičs noted: "We are under no illusions about the Zapad 2017 exercise. It is not a defensive exercise - it is an offensive exercise in its nature."
The Financial Times (FT) reported on 3 September (Sunday) that in the past similar war games were launched just prior to major military operations in Georgia and Crimea.
Most recently, a massive outbreak of "NotPetya" ransomware originating from Ukraine was blamed on mysterious Russian forces. Following that, Nato officials warned that cyberattacks will soon be met with a stronger collective response – and could even end in military action.
Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg, speaking the day after the ransomware spread to more than 60 countries and infected thousands of computers, explained how future incident may trigger Article 5 – which states that a provocation against one ally is viewed as an attack on all.
British intelligence chief Alex Younger, head of MI6, in 2016 warned about the scale of Moscow's hybrid warfare. Not naming but clearly referencing the Russian state, he said: "They do this through means as varied as cyberattacks, propaganda or subversion of democratic process."