Defending Digital Democracy: West needs comprehensive response to hybrid threats


The former managers of Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns are leading a new initiative called “Defending Digital Democracy” in the hopes of preventing a repeat of Russia’s 2016 election interference, The Washington Post reports.

Nazi Germany pioneered the concept of Weltanschauungskrieg or “Worldview warfare”, using information to mobilize citizens and influence enemies, notes analyst Cameron Colquhoun. By 1938, Hitler’s speeches were broadcast, live, around the world, from Lithuania to Uruguay. The Soviets refined worldview warfare, and by the 50s, the KGB built a unit dedicated to spreading conspiracies, planting false stories and using information to influence enemies, he writes for Wired:

Today we call it fake news, but the Russians have always used the term Aktivnye Meropriyatiya – “active measures”. A century later, Russia has successfully adapted its active measures for the digital age. The internet has hypercharged their effectiveness and the west has re-awakened to Russian dezinformatsiya by the SVR, the successor to the KGB. Now that the west is conscious, again, of Russian active measures, where else could Russia use its cyber capabilities, and to what end?

Russia’s intelligence operatives are among the world’s best, James Kirchick writes for POLITICO, and they made a keen study of the American political scene prior to identifying potential allies.

The response from the international community to Russia’s escalating cyberattacks has been muted, VICE reports:

In Europe, the EU has created the Cyber Diplomatic Toolbox that aims to “strengthen the bloc’s ability to deter and respond to cyber threats.” But the statement announcing the new initiative lacks details on the concrete steps the EU will take, and there is no indication that the EU is taking any active measures to press Russia to cease its activities. EU officials did not respond to multiple calls and emails to ascertain if the bloc is actively doing anything to counter Russia’s attacks on Ukraine.

“Passivity towards the occurring cyberattacks only encourages Russia to be more aggressive — and it will,” said Jarno Limnell, an expert in military science and professor of cybersecurity at Aalto University in Finland. “Russia will keep pushing more aggressive and sophisticated cyberoperations as long as the West doesn’t push back.”

Russia is playing on social fissures within the Western democracies, says Jeffrey Mankoff, Deputy Director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. These activities were quite common during the Cold War, obviously using different tools, he tells The Cipher Brief’s Kaitlin Lavinder:

The techniques are not all that new, but the tools are. The ability to purloin large amounts of information through compromising networks and to selectively disseminate it through social media is not something that the security services in the West had prepared for and didn’t really have tools in their toolbox to counteract. That’s beginning to change. But we’ve already seen a number of these disruptive campaigns play out.

“So many people are obsessed, just pouring over the technical details of what’s going on,” said Thomas Rid, a professor at the department of war studies at King’s College London. “But this is the equivalent of being on the battlefield with a magnification glass and looking at the bullet casings on the ground while completely missing the larger troop movements.”

Our underdeveloped common understanding of “hybrid” warfare – a mix of propaganda, subversion, military saber-rattling, economic pressure and other forms of mischief and meddling – still hampers our ability to mitigate and resist them, say analysts Edward Lucas and Jarno Limnéll. Two things in particular are missing in our research and analysis, they write for the Center for European Policy Analysis:

  • One is a comprehensive response. Our adversaries attack every part of our society, moving seamlessly and flexibly between different tactics and techniques. Hampered by habits, rules and other obstacles, we too often lack a “joined-up” response to this threat.
  • The second problem is that hybrid threats do not respect national boundaries, whereas our responses—such as they are—tend to be at the national-government level. We urgently need to increase and improve cross-border cooperation.



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