Mueller indictment showcases the need for deterrence in cyberspace

Mueller indictment showcases the need for deterrence in cyberspace
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U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod RosensteinRod RosensteinWashington still needs more transparency House Judiciary to probe DOJ's seizure of data from lawmakers, journalists The Hill's Morning Report - Biden-Putin meeting to dominate the week MORE's recent announcement of an indictment listing 13 Russian nationals, with more revelations likely to follow, marks the lowest ebb for U.S.-Russia relations since the Cold War era. With Russia’s leadership continuing to deny allegations and Washington getting swamped with calls for tough retaliatory measures, the situation easily might spin out of control. The possible solution might be the emergence of a deterrence in cyberspace that would help avoid such situations in the future.

The Mueller indictment has caused waves across the Western world. It’s evident that the scale of influence likely goes much beyond 13 employees and several Russian companies, to encompass broader and well-coordinated efforts for undermining democratic institutions and exploiting existing divisions.

Questions remain that have to be answered. In particular, to what extent might online trolls have influenced American voters’ political preferences, given the mere budget of $100,000 that was incomparable to the Trump and Clinton campaigns’ social-media outlays of almost $81 million?


Answers might not arrive soon. What matters more is the proven attempt to disrupt the American political system.

With the Kremlin’s expansionist political strategy, Russia has seemingly decided to position itself as a disruptor. Whether it has attempted to interfere in political processes across Europe, or occupy territories in Eastern Ukraine, the actions have followed a strategy of undermining international order and squeezing in Russia’s role wherever its possible. But with regard to U.S. election meddling, it is unclear whether the Kremlin initially intended to push the limits of its relations with Washington to such extent.

According to the indictment, first attempts to interfere were recorded in 2014. By that time, the Kremlin long had been accusing Washington of meddling into political affairs of post-Soviet states and allegedly orchestrating the so-called color revolutions and public unrest. Vladimir Putin has accused Washington of fomenting election protests in 2011 when thousands hit the streets of Russian cities chanting against the rigged election results. The same thinking prevailed in regards to the Maidan revolution in 2014 and most likely catalyzed a Russian response.     

It is possible to assume that when the decision to interfere in the U.S. political system was made few acknowledged the actual consequences. Given the specifics of the Russian vertical political system, with competing power cliques, the idea of spreading influence via online troll farms allegedly was sold to the higher authorities by one such group. The insignificant monthly budget (for such a task) of slightly more than $1 million, and the mostly corporate profiles of those involved in “Project Lakhta,” shows that few believed the covert interferences would cause a serious disruption. The probable goal was to show Russia’s capacity to respond and ultimately boost a certain clique’s influence within the local political hierarchy.

In predicting how U.S.-Russia relations might evolve, it is important to recognize the Kremlin’s handling of this situation. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Spokesman Dmitry Peskov gave copycat responses claiming that Russia had nothing to do with interferences, echoing Putin’s nyet. This suggests there is almost no hope that the Russian leadership will publicly acknowledge any meddling — or agree to extradite those on Mueller’s list to face prosecution. With Evgeny Prigozhin, a Russian businessman nicknamed “Putin’s cook,” allegedly responsible for drafting the plan, it will be hard to catch the Kremlin by the arm. Any remaining evidence likely will be meticulously wiped out, if it hasn’t been already.

It is clear that pressure on Russia will continue to build. The latest Munich Security Conference showed that Washington is preparing to enact tougher economic sanctions and projecting stronger responses across the periphery of geopolitical interests. With the American leadership receiving “carte blanche” public support for being hard with Russia, toughness might be an intuitive retaliatory measure.

But there is a misconception that pressure could motivate the Kremlin to abandon its strategy. Media and online space in Russia is heavily filtered; those posting, sharing or liking “undesirable content” receive prison sentences. The latest anti-corruption investigation by Alexey Navalny, the opposition leader, about Kremlin-connected billionaire Oleg Deripaska allegedly bribing Sergei Prikhodko, a Russian deputy prime minister, and securing suspiciously close ties with Paul ManafortPaul John ManafortYellen should utilize the resources available before pushing new regulations Huawei paid Tony Podesta 0K for White House lobbying FBI agents swarm Russian oligarch's DC home MORE almost led to blocking of YouTube and Instagram.

In the “battle between the television and the fridge” — the tension between propaganda-fueled public jingoism and worsening economic environment — half-emptiness of the latter is compensated by scrapped internet neutrality and more disinformation being disseminated by state-run media. In effect, the Kremlin’s authoritarian grip on the internet and suppression of public debates equips it with an edge, if compared to American openness.

With calls for carrying out a similar cyber attack on Russia, it might be best to remember the Cold War-style nuclear deterrence: the doctrine of mutually assured destruction was the biggest guarantee that such destruction would never take place. A similar pattern could be enacted in cyberspace. The recent meeting between CIA Director Mike PompeoMike PompeoHillicon Valley — TikTok, Snapchat seek to distance themselves from Facebook State: US 'strongly opposes' Israeli settlement expansion Lawmakers praise upcoming establishment of cyber bureau at State MORE and Sergei Naryshkin, head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, likely means that deterrence in cyberspace topped the agenda, but it’s unclear whether the case was made for such an agreement.

Recent reports of Twitter accounts linked to Russia releasing posts on the gun control debate shortly after the shooting in Parkland, Florida, suggest that troll farms still operate. With U.S.-Russia relations continuing to deteriorate — and technologies including robots and artificial intelligence exercising greater influence — it might be the time to acknowledge the necessity for deterrence that would mark cyber warfare as another doomsday weapon and, hence, keep conflicting sides in check.

Dmitriy Frolovskiy is a political analyst and independent journalist based in Moscow. He is a consultant on policy and strategy in the Middle East and Central Asia with private entities, and has written about Russia’s foreign policy toward the Gulf Cooperation Council states and former Soviet territories.