The US should brace now for Russia's next cyberattack

The US should brace now for Russia's next cyberattack

As Allied jets tore away from Syrian airspace following strikes on chemical storage and research facilities, Russian trolls and bots began flooding social media with disinformation. The Pentagon reported a whopping 2,000 percent increase in Russian online propaganda.

Russia’s venomous, relentless manipulation of social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram continues to outflank American and Westerns efforts to blunt the blatant lies. This is no longer simply about “election meddling” — it is a grave national security issue, the escalation of which should concern U.S. officials.

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Russia's proficiency at information warfare has been on display in the wake of the U.S.-led strikes. The Russian government has no moral culpability. There is no ethical system of checks and balance in Russian society. The Kremlin has no one to answer to. This is dangerous, as it isn’t solely propaganda the U.S. need be wary of. A significant Russian cyberattack should be considered “high threat.”

 

Following the joint assault on Bashar Assad’s chemical weapons compounds, the United States, Britain and France should brace for an onslaught of covert cyber warfare: aggression justified by a barrage of fake news and propaganda from Russian trolls. Moscow is already probing essential networks to retaliate and disrupt allied infrastructure and services.

Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that Moscow would respond to Syrian strikes with “missile attacks against opposition forces and military positions of the US special forces.” Russia will not respond militarily. Instead it will aim its formidable cyber munitions at targets likely to include transport, airlines and traffic control, dams and water supply, natural gas networks, financial institutions, hospitals and government social services. The national electricity grid would be a prime target for a “category one” offensive. 

The cyberattacks will be promulgated via disinformation. The Russian playbook is to generate division and conflict. Their goal is to propagate misperception and exploit domestic political division.

They will spread misinformation through fake think tanks and fake research and use accounts or user names that impersonate real people. Moscow will cultivate fake news and place stories organically on Facebook and Twitter. They will deploy millions of bots and trolls. Moscow is cruelly adept at fanning existing embers of racial, economic and religious differences, having indirectly supported groups as diverse as ANTIFA, Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersWarren joins Sanders in support of striking McDonald's workers Kavanaugh allegations could be monster storm brewing for midterm elections      Senate approves 4B spending bill MORE and Black Lives Matter.

The United States must vigorously push back on Russia. The administration should determine a clear, unmistakable line that, unlike the impotent, tragic Syrian “red line” of the Obama era, cannot be crossed.

We need to unequivocally define intolerable behavior. The U.S. should make it inherently apparent that we will forcefully defend ourselves and our allies if attacked, be it kinetic or cyber. That we will not abide, or leave unpunished, any foreign attempt to influence our election processes. 

We cannot continue to play defense. The United States has an extraordinary breadth of instruments to bring this struggle to Russia. The Departments of Defense, State, Justice, Homeland Security, Energy and the intelligence agencies, if working in concert, would present a formidable adversary to Russian information warfare.

The State Department should actively cooperate with social media platforms such as Twitter, WhatsApp and Facebook and allied nations — not for user data or to betray user confidence (which is in such short supply) — but to provide expertise, insight and counsel. 

Russia cannot continue to carry out seemingly unfettered and unreciprocated information warfare against the United States. The consequences must be clear. We must be prepared to deploy countermeasures when required. The options run the gamut of diplomacy, sanctions, cyberwarfare, intelligence and kinetic military response. 

Gregory Keeley is a retired lieutenant commander with service in both the United States Navy and the Royal Australian Navy. He is a veteran of Iraq, Afghanistan and the Pacific. LCDR Keeley also served as senior adviser to a vice chairman of the House Armed Service Committee, Rep. Jim Saxton (R-N.J.), and to a chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.). He was also the National Cybersecurity Institute’s inaugural visiting fellow.