Russian hacking illustrates increasing role of cybersecurity in geopolitical warfare

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Russia has launched a sustained and sophisticated political warfare campaign against the United States and European democracies. The campaign is grander and more audacious than simply hacking in order to steal sensitive emails, and it is central to Russia’s foreign policy objectives: the weakening of European and trans-Atlantic cohesion, including the disruption or even destruction of the European Union and NATO. It is a direct assault on our system of government.

{mosads} The Senate Armed Services Committee today will hold a hearing aimed not only at addressing last year’s cyberattacks, but also at providing insight to the American people about the broader Russian political warfare campaign to destabilize the west. Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain and Ranking Member Sen. Jack Reed have both strongly condemned Russia, with McCain characterizing the attacks as war.


Just as in the Cold War, Moscow has weaponized information to achieve its political objectives. They have reinstituted “active measures,” such as the use of media control and disinformation, to carefully tailor the spectrum of decisions available to an adversary. As a 2015 study made clear, Russia has actively used this method in Ukraine since it invaded in 2014.

Remarkably, Russian officials have described their strategy in numerous places. The results, most recently on display in the American election, have all the hallmarks of the political warfare strategy they described.

In a 2013 journal article, the Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Federation, General Valery Gerasimov, explained that Russia would not match the U.S. military’s technological might but would, instead, use a variety of political and informational tools to achieve strategic effects, including the  “use of technologies for influencing state structures and the population with the help of information networks.”

The Russians have demonstrated a keen ability to “shift the flow of information,” by flooding news networks with too much information or disinformation. This crowds out other decision factors, and controls the choices available to an adversary. They have made extensive use of bot-armies and paid Internet trolls to shape information online—to the point where they can make something trend on their own. And if something is trending, it gets more coverage. In newsrooms around the country, tweets, Facebook likes, and web-page visits all translate into more coverage.

Chris Zappone, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald in June 2016, traced the tactic back to 2007, “when pro-Kremlin bloggers successfully overwhelmed news of an opposition rally in 2007 in Russia simply by crowding out posts supporting the event with coverage of a smaller pro-Kremlin march.” Zappone documented similar Russian tactics during Russia’s parliamentary election of 2011 and during the Scottish independence referendum of 2014.

What’s more, the Kremlin’s active measures apparatus appears to have been deployed in the U.S. election. Adrian Chen, a journalist who documented the work of Russia’s paid troll army in a 2015 New York Times Magazine story, continued to follow those trolls. In December 2015—nearly a year before the election—he described a phenomenon that surprised him. In the course of his reporting, Chen had made a “list of Russian trolls,” and explained their behavior: “I check on [them] once in a while, still. And a lot of them have turned into conservative accounts, like fake conservatives. I don’t know what’s going on, but they’re all tweeting about Donald Trump and stuff.”




The effect on the public’s consciousness was incredible. Gallup, Georgetown University, and the University of Michigan released a compelling visual depiction of what Americans remembered about Hillary Clinton each week, from mid-July to Election Day. To say the email scandal dogged her entire campaign is an understatement.  It swamped her campaign—only being truly eclipsed in early September when Clinton fainted at the 9/11 anniversary ceremony.

Researchers at the University of Southern California estimated that 400,000 bots operated Twitter accounts between mid-September and mid-October 2016 and produced 20 percent of the political content on that social media platform. Seventy-five percent of those bots were pro-Trump. While the study’s authors point out it is impossible to say who’s controlling these bots, the links between bots active on social media during the U.S. campaign and Russia are unmistakable.

Now having elected Trump, the trolls have shifted their focus to the next Western-liberal democracy facing an election: Germany. Bots are now targeting Angela Merkel—many of them repurposed pro-Trump accounts.

Hacking is often used as a tool to steal privileged information. But if the public discussion focuses on that specific function while missing the strategic use of information to shape American and European politics to benefit Russia, then we will have missed the forest for the trees.

Dr. Mark Jacobson is a non-resident senior fellow, and Dr. James Ludes is vice president for Public Research and Initiatives at Salve Regina University and both have written doctoral dissertations on the American use of political warfare during the Cold War. Jacobson is a former senior advisor to both the secretaries of Defense and Navy. Ludes previously worked in the U.S. Senate for then-Sen. John Kerry as an advisor on foreign and defense policy.

The views expressed by Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags cybersecurity Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Jack Reed James Ludes John Kerry John McCain Mark Jacobson Russia
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