Trump underestimates the Russian cyber threat

Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin
Getty Images/Russia Today

During the second presidential debate, Republican nominee Donald Trump hinted that perhaps we did not know if the Russians hacked the 2016 Democratic National Convention emails. He even explicitly said that “maybe there is no hacking.”

However, this is clearly false.

The U.S. intelligence community and the Department of Homeland Security noted last Friday that Russia was indeed behind this year’s campaign of hacks. Trump’s reasoning poses a threat to our national security because it underestimates Russia’s cyber warfare capabilities, which are extensive and have consistently been demonstrated across Europe.

{mosads}As I have noted in my newest book, “Beyond Crimea: The New Russian Empire,” there is considerable evidence that the Russian government operates an “army” of hackers which conducts its cyber warfare campaigns supporting Moscow’s foreign policy and military aims. Indeed, many cybersecurity experts agree that since the 2000s, Russia has acquired the greatest capability in the world for cyber warfare and it uses it primarily for foreign policy aims, in contrast to China, which uses it primarily for economically motivated cyber espionage.

Although the Kremlin denies it, Russia was the first country in history to coordinate a cyberattack with a military campaign when its hackers reportedly worked alongside Russian military forces during their invasion of Georgia in 2008 targeting Georgian internet infrastructure. Earlier in Estonia, in 2007, pro-Russia hackers enacted a highly similar DDoS (distributed denial of service) campaign against Estonian business and government during the diplomatic spat between Tallinn and Moscow. Likewise, since 2014, pro-Russia hackers have been leading a cyber-espionage campaign against the Ukrainian government and even NATO.

Furthermore, in December 2015, a Russian hacking group known as Sandworm has managed to take down an electricity distribution grid in Ukraine. This attack managed to cause an unprecedented power outage in the western part of the country as it managed to affect 225,000 customers for around six hours.

Most recently, in April this year, Sweden has notified NATO that its air traffic control infrastructure has been hit by a powerful cyberattack that was carried out five months earlier and has crippled its airspace. The attack that took place on Nov. 4, 2015 affected the Arlanda, Landvetter and Bromma airports, forcing them to cancel and ground domestic and international flights.

The Swedes strongly believe that the cyberattack was initiated by a so-called Advanced Persistent Threat group, which previously was linked to the Russian military intelligence service GRU.

While up to the present day much of Russia’s cyber-warfare capabilities have been centered on political and military objectives, it is quite possible that Moscow may now turn its army of hackers to economic espionage. Given Russia’s increasingly desperate need to access advanced Western technology for its oil and gas exploration projects, it might try to bypass the current sanctions by gaining access to this technology via illicit means.

In the end, it is clear that the issue of Russian cyberwarfare will emerge as a major risk and concern for the next U.S. administration, no matter who wins the White House in November. As recent history demonstrates, cyber-warfare has and will continue to be a considerable risk for both NATO and our allies in Europe.

Trump should not continue to underestimate Russia’s motives and capabilities.

Grigas is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the author of “Beyond Crimea: The New Russian Empire” (Yale University Press, 2016). Follow her on Twitter @AgniaGrigas.

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

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