In Other News: Russia Denies Ransomware Attack, Renewed Violence in the Middle East & More – May 14, 2021

May 14, 2021

Russia has denied involvement in the ransomware cyberattack on the Colonial Pipeline in the United States, which has disrupted activity and supply from the biggest U.S. gasoline pipeline. According to the FBI, the attack was conducted by a criminal network called DarkSide, which is believed to be based in Russia or Eastern Europe, prompting many to believe the Kremlin was behind the cyberattack against a critical piece of American infrastructure. U.S. President Joe Biden said on Monday that there was no evidence so far that the Russian government was involved but noted that the ransomware was from Russia. A statement from the Russian Embassy in Washington said, “We categorically reject the baseless fabrications of individual journalists and reiterate that Russia does not conduct ‘malicious’ activity in the virtual space.” The attack on the pipeline caused a shutdown which has prompted panic buying at the pumps along the East coast, particularly in the Southeast. The hackers broke into the pipeline networks on Friday, May 7, and reportedly, Colonial Pipeline paid $5 million in ransom shortly after the attack was underway. It is unclear if the Russian government was involved in this ransomware attack – a pretty typical though significant type of attack that cyber criminals have launched against a number of other American private corporations over the last several years. But it should not be discounted as a serious possibility given Russian President Vladimir Putin’s history of using cyber tactics to undermine the United States. At the very least, the shutdown of a major gasoline pipeline and the panic buying that it has caused is evidence that the U.S. energy infrastructure is vulnerable to such cyberattacks, which can have a significant impact on oil and gas in the United States.

Renewed violent clashes between Israelis and Palestinians have made it difficult for Arab states with new diplomatic relations with Israel as well as for the United States and its role in the Middle East. The renewed conflict started May 10 and so far, Hamas and Islamic Jihad have fired more than 1,000 rockets from Gaza. Some have been intercepted by Israeli antimissile defenses, but others have killed Israeli civilians, prompting a significant Israeli military offensive in Gaza. By May 12, Israelis and Palestinians were engaged in mob violence on the streets of several Israeli cities, while the Israeli military killed senior Hamas military figures. These clashes represent the latest round in the longstanding conflict in the Middle East, including a 50-day war in 2014 and several others since Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007, but the violence this week has been the worst inside Israel in decades. It is unclear how the violence will impact the political future of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been blamed by opposition leaders for the spiraling situation. Meanwhile, the clashes have made it hard for Arab governments which have only just recently established diplomatic relations with Israel. The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco all normalized relations with Israel last year but have criticized Israeli actions this week. The accords struck with Israel in 2020 were supposed to give the Arab world more leverage over Israel when it came to the Palestinians, but this week’s renewed violence puts this assumption in doubt and the new relations to a major test. At the same time, the situation is quickly becoming a test for the Biden administration, which may be forced to engage before having formed a coherent strategy in the region. Biden has called for de-escalation and has sent an envoy, Hady Amr, to the region. But Biden has watched several successive U.S. presidents try and fail to achieve peace in the Middle East, and at least for now, seems more eager to avoid than to engage.

Iran has enriched uranium to a higher purity than previously believed, according to the UN atomic watchdog agency. The International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Rafael Grossi reported this week that inspections from late April confirmed that Iran is enriching uranium at up to 60% purity at its Natanz plant. According to the UN agency, this was thought to be the result of “fluctuations” in the process. Iran had announced that it would seek 60% enrichment and the report now confirms this to be the case. It is also further evidence that Iran continues to violate the restrictions as laid out in the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal, which the United States pulled out of in 2018 during the Trump administration. Diplomatic talks to bring the United States back into the agreement have only just started, with representatives in Vienna now. This new revelation about Iran’s latest violations of the deal will make American reentry into the agreement that much more difficult. So far, Iran’s government in Tehran has said it would reverse such violations if the U.S. government would remove all sanctions instituted during the Trump term. The timing of talks has been further complicated by another incident in the strait of Hormuz this week (when a U.S. coast guard ship fired 30 warning shots on Iranian fast boats speeding toward U.S. navy vessels) and Republican Senators demands that Biden call off nuclear talks with Iran over its funding of Hamas and amid ongoing clashes between Israelis and Palestinians.