Former boss at Brit electronic spy agency GCHQ, Robert Hannigan, has called for the application of "unexplained wealth orders" and economic sanctions against Russia rather than cyber attacks.
Appearing on Radio 4's flagship Today programme this morning (Tuesday from 2:20-2:25), Hannigan said starting a cyber-conflict against Russia would play into Russian President Vladimir Putin's narrative – and would in any case be ineffective as a lever to apply political pressure to the Kremlin.
Hannigan damped down talk in the UK media that cyber attacks against Russia might form part of the response to poisoning of Russian-born double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the medieval cathedral city of Salisbury in southern England last week.
He cited UK government statements to explain this was either a state-run operation or that Russia had lost control of a chemical weapons agent. This follows Russia's highly contentious annexation of Crimea back in 2014.
Reprisals should work to "contain Russia", he said, and show it what the consequences of acting as a "rogue nation" would be. As well as the expulsion of diplomats "on a scale we haven't seen since the Cold War" there should be economic consequences, targeting wealthy individual Russians and their assets in London as well as investments in Russia.
"Everybody is looking around for something dramatic to do," Hannigan said. "But starting a cyber conflict - which of course we could do, we could do destructive things in cyberspace because we have great capabilities - would benefit no one. It would put us in the wrong place
"These overseas adventures are his [Putin's] way of wrapping himself in a nationalist flag," Hannigan said. "We shouldn't play to that narrative: we should just firmly, with other nations, start to push back."
Asked about possible cyber reprisals, Hannigan argued these were not a good option.
"Everybody is looking around for something dramatic to do," he said. "But starting a cyber conflict - which of course we could do, we could do destructive things in cyberspace because we have great capabilities - would benefit no one. It would put us in the wrong place."
It's possible to do "great damage" to anything that's networked, at the most destructive end of cyber-attacks options, Hannigan said. "I don't think we should be going there because that would play to the Russian narrative - we are not outside the international rules of civilised nations and we don't want to be," the former spy chief said, adding: "We play by the rules that most nations do".
Asked about the possibility that covert cyber action was already ongoing, Hannigan said that it would be "unwise" for him to talk about covert actions. "The covert work is going to be targeted at individuals and organisations that are responsible for this terrible crime," Hannigan said. "The idea of launching some large scale cyber conflict against Russia makes no more sense than launching a military conflict against Russia."
Russia is prepared to switch off domestic power in Ukraine as part of its campaign but Western countries aren't prepared to do that against Moscow because we are "ethical" and "play by different standards," Hannigan concluded. ®