Russian cyberattacks aimed at legitimacy of political process


Current and former government officials painted a sinister portrait Wednesday of Russian cyberattacks aimed at interfering in the U.S. presidential election last year, AP reports:

Moscow stockpiled stolen information and selectively disseminated it during the campaign in an effort to undermine the legitimacy of the American political process, they said. The Russians “used fake news and propaganda and they also used online amplifiers to spread the information to as many people as possible,” Bill Priestap, the FBI’s top counterintelligence official, told the Senate Intelligence committee.

The unprecedentedly high tempo and visibility of the Kremlin’s active measures can be explained by the fact that Russia’s security and intelligence services regard themselves as already at war, and operate accordingly, notes Dr Mark Galeotti, author of the recent report ‘Hybrid War or Gibridnaya Voina: getting Russia’s non-linear military challenge right’ (Mayak, 2016). Three basic premises apply, he writes for the NATO Review:

The first is that any reverses for the West are to Russia’s implicit advantage. The second is that their role is concrete: they do not just gather information, they advocate policies and carry out active measures routinely. Finally, they seem to believe it is better to seize an opportunity than avoid a mistake. Western, peacetime agencies are rightly risk averse, well aware of the potential dangers, political or otherwise, in badly judged actions. Their Russian counterparts are far more adventurous; it is more dangerous for an officer’s career to be regarded as unwilling to take a chance than to trigger international opprobrium.

Russian messaging strategy was on display at the Munich Security Conference where on February 18 the wily and cynical Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, delivered an address that was a masterpiece of Orwellian “doublethink,” writes Council on Foreign Relations analyst Max Boot:

Lavrov was mincing no words when he claimed that the world is seeing the rise of a “post-West world order,” in which each nation will develop according to its “cultural, historical and civilizational identity.” That’s a cute way of saying that nations such as Russia and China that have long traditions of dictatorship and scant experience of democracy will continue to develop along illiberal lines, while supporting other dictatorships such as Syria and Iran that subjugate their own citizens. It was also a clarion call to signal the end of the Pax Americana—the post-World War II international order led and defended by the United States.

European Response: Reaction or Strategy?

European countries have taken a wide array of responses to counter dangers in the cyber domain, analyst Sergey Sukhankin writes for the Eurasia Daily Monitor:

  • First, many European countries have acknowledged that information and cyber security are inseparable from the security of the state.
  • Second, institution-building has entered a new phase. New structures are being placed under the umbrella of national armed forces and similar agencies—this trend once again underscores a growing recognition of the vitality of information/cyber domains.
  • Third, NATO is steadily becoming a common platform that unites and coordinates the efforts of European countries. In this regard, the Alliance may be increasingly likely today to invoke Article 5 if one or several member states are targeted by a cyberattack that threatens critical military or civilian infrastructure.

Regime change by stealth’

Putin regards NATO and the West as threats in three ways, adds Galeotti, a senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations Prague:

  • First, they are obstructing Moscow’s efforts to ignore or undermine the sovereignty of states within that sphere of influence. Ukraine, Georgia and Belarus are the particular bones of contention at present.
  • Second, in their commitment to democracy, transparency and the rule of law, they represent a normative challenge to the Russian model.
  • Finally, they are, he believes, seeking to subvert his regime’s authority within Russia itself.

“The clear hunger within a portion of the Russian population for genuine democracy and rule of law are considered proof of a ‘soft power’ attempt to destabilize the existing regime; one former Russian security officer characterized it to me as ‘regime change by stealth,’” Galeotti notes.

Perhaps the most impressive advancements in information/cyber security over the past several years were achieved by Ukraine, Sukhankin adds:

Though practically defenseless in this domain during 2013–2014, today the country has been able to organize “cyber troops” of its own and introduced an extremely controversial ban on Russian social networks and IT products reportedly employed by Moscow for both intelligence-gathering and cyberwarfare purposes (see EDM, June 715). ….the structure has grown to 3,000 individuals and has managed to achieve some serious results…Possibly even more importantly, with NATO’s support, Ukraine is currently working on creating a single national cyber security center that will coordinate the activities in this domain of all key ministries and agencies…..

But Europe still confronts some key challenges Sukhankin notes:

  • Generally, Europe has not developed a clear understanding of Russia’s interpretation of the concept of “information confrontation” (“informatsionnoye protivoborstvo”). The emphasis is made on either “cyber” or “information” aspects, while for Moscow these are purposely blurred (see EDM, May 11).
  • Russian influence in Europe remains significant. Pro-Russian trolls routinely spread disinformation and harass investigative journalists/activists who attempt to disclose Moscow’s activities in Europe.
  • Many European experts continue to express hesitancy in directly blaming Russia for cyberattacks on their societies, citing supposed “lack of proof.”
  • As a non-NATO frontline state that is directly targeted by Russian information/cyber aggression, Ukraine has to deal with Moscow on its own, even though this is an arduous task.


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