There’s no dull moment when it comes to Russia’s cyber warfare, even beyond their probable intervention in international elections. Just recently, another leak demonstrated that the NSA believes that Russia tried to hack the 2016 presidential election by gaining access to the U.S. voter registration network. In addition, Russian hackers may have planted a fake news story on Qatar’s leadership social media platforms to deepen the rift among Arab nations. It seems that nothing is beyond manipulation, and there is no limit to Russia’s use of “soft power” to achieve their strategic goals.
In recent years, Russia has increased its involvement within its sphere of influence (primarily other countries in the former Soviet Union) including the use of open military force, intelligence operations, psychological warfare, and economic warfare. The hidden moves in Russia’s agenda are no less significant than its overt actions – perhaps even more so.
Russia is second only to the United States and China in terms of global ambition. Russia's geopolitical situation, history, and aggressively expansive national security program make it a significant rival to countries near and far. But Moscow is convinced that it faces a variety of imminent threats and feels extremely vulnerable, expressing it through aggressive moves on the international stage – which only intensifies the perception of Russia as a danger.
Russian sees the West as the most significant threat, even with the election of US President Donald TrumpDonald TrumpHarris stumps for McAuliffe in Virginia On The Money — Sussing out what Sinema wants Hillicon Valley — Presented by Xerox — The Facebook Oversight Board is not pleased MORE. The Russians fear the combined impact of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union on their sphere of influence. They fear that Western leaders seek to turn the former Soviet Union countries into an extension of West, and by that tighten their political, military, economic, and cultural influence on Russia.
One of the Kremlin's most conspicuous strategies – establishing a new iron curtain to prevent the countries under Russia’s influence from strengthening ties with NATO – utilizes soft power, both secretly and overtly. When Russia encounters overly independence rivals, it employs military power (as with Ukraine on the issue of Crimea in 2014). In other cases, Russia adds an essential layer of protection around its sphere of influence. For example, Russia is using the Middle East as a ‘buffer’, relying mainly on local allies such as President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and supporting them through military and non-military means including money, resources, intelligence, and political backing. In these cases, Moscow would prefer to refrain from using military force, or to use it as little as possible.
However, the most interesting Russian operations are those which produce an indirect and sophisticated confrontation with the West:
- The hacking of American Democratic Party computers;
- The secret contact with senior officials in Trump's campaign;
- The hacking and leaking of documents from Macron's campaign headquarters; and
- The reports that Moscow was behind the massive WikiLeaks disclosure, which continue to embarrass the Americans and cause tension between the US and its allies.
The Russians take the battle over public consciousness very seriously. The power of their ability to influence or control public sentiment is, in fact, greater than any bomb. Within their sphere of influence, the Russians invest significant efforts to prevent ties with the West. They back their military efforts with campaigns that focus on the public psyche.
The practice of trying to influence the internal political processes of other countries is not new. The Americans, British, and Russians all have extensive experience in deploying secret forces in psychological and economic warfare. For example, the British-backed Americans initiated a coup in 1953 against the regime of then Iranian ruler Mohammad Mosaddegh (“Operation Ajax”).
In the modern age, the Russians are harnessing the inherent advantages of cyberspace: secretly gathering information over an extended period and developing capabilities that can be triggered at any time; concealing a hacker’s identity, including by conscripting a variety of actors with a variety of motivations; and using a third party to disseminate embarrassing information. Above all, nothing is sacred to them, including the hallmark of the West – its democratic ethos and process.
These tactics make Russia a powerful rival to the West. The Russians understand, to an inspiring degree, the divisions in Western societies, and they follow the first rule of psychological warfare: To effectively manipulate, one must rely on reality rather than easily refuted lies. The Russians did not create the public antipathy to Washington's traditional politics, nor the polarization that divided France. Yet they skillfully identified the fault lines and continue to deftly employ them to their advantage.
The Russians are setting the stage for the next war: a continuous, multi-dimensional campaign involving the use of secret and overt soft power and relying on cyberspace; a campaign directed both at the heart of Western ethos and at those who aspire to share it.
Shay Hershkovitz, Ph.D., is chief strategy officer at Wikistrat, Inc. and a political science professor at Tel Aviv University specializing in intelligence studies. He is also a former IDF intelligence officer whose book, "Aman Comes To Light," deals with the history of the Israeli intelligence community.
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