Cyber-enabled information struggle: Russia’s approach, Western vulnerabilities


The Kremlin’s cyber operations against recent elections in western democracies are symptomatic of Russia’s perception of its ongoing ‘information struggle’ with the West, according to a new report, The cyber-enabled information struggle: Russia’s approach and Western vulnerabilities.

To the Russian way of thinking, the information space ties the technical and psychological domains together, both of which are utilized to achieve the desired effects. Cyberspace is not restricted to the technical domain, but can also be used to achieve effects in the psychological domain, notes Veli-Pekka Kivimäki of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs:

Individuals are currently insufficiently protected against nation-state actors in cyberspace, creating vulnerabilities in democratic societies. Governments need to find ways to counter and deter attacks against their citizens in cyberspace as well. Attributing cyber attacks is an effort in interpreting the technical breadcrumb trail left behind after attacks, but when dealing with nation-state actors, the political cost of attribution becomes a factor in determining responses.

Within the past three years, Ukraine has been subjected to no less than 7,000 cyberattacks. Ukrainian cyber expert Sergey Radkevych recently claimed that “Ukraine is in a state of cyber war with Russia” and that Russian cyber activities pose an existential threat to Ukraine’s national security, notes analyst Sergey Sukhankin, who reaches the following conclusions:

  • First, the impressive capabilities of Ukrainian hackers and open-source-intelligence volunteers in disclosing Russian EW have not yet been met with any significant level of support from the Ukrainian government. Traditional problems such as bureaucracy, red tape and a slow pace of decision-making do not allow the government to rapidly apply the results of these investigations to the needs of the Armed Forces and Ukrainian cyber security. This drastically reduces the potential of the Ukrainian military and convinces the Russian side of its unconditional superiority.
  • Second, even though Russian capabilities in the domain of EW have grown exponentially since 2014, they still cannot deliver total invulnerability. The most recent events in Syria (the United States’ April 7 cruise missile strike on al-Shayrat Airbase—see EDM, April 10) and the fact that Ukraine managed to intercept Russian signals in Crimea suggest that the actual might of Russian EW capabilities is lower than frequently portrayed in the West.
  • Finally, Crimea as well as Kaliningrad oblast—as two heavily militarized anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) “bubbles”—together constitute key links in Russia’s growing “arc of counter-containment” (see EDM, January 18). And these areas could increasingly be used by the Kremlin as “cyber bastions” as well.

Credit: CNA

Influence operations through social media can feed into societal fault lines, reinforcing fragmentation and the formation of information bubbles, Kivimäki argues:

This effect was illustrated in a study on the dissemination of false information in social media during the 2016 US elections, which found that users in ideologically segregated groups are more likely to believe ideologically aligned headlines, whether true or false. This taps directly into the psychological effect known as confirmation bias, whereby recipients of information who already hold a strong view on a subject are more likely accept new information fitting this pre-determined position, without critically evaluating the new input.

“Just as states do not tolerate violence against their citizens by foreign governments, they should not stand idly by when their citizens are being targeted by intrusive and coercive actions through cyberspace,” he concludes. “The challenge will lie in the ability of governments to recognize these threats, and in overcoming the political hurdles of attribution. If attackers continue to perpetrate cyber-enabled campaigns with impunity, they will be implicitly incentivized to continue their malicious acts.”

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