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5 things we can learn from the Russian hacking scandal

(Kacper Pempel/Reuters)

On Friday, we learned that we are witnessing new versions of what U.S. statesman George Kennan, in a then-classified 1948 memo, called political warfare: coercion short of war, involving a mix of overt propaganda and covert psychological warfare efforts.

That’s what we can take away from the U.S. intelligence service’s release of an unclassified report, “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent U.S. Elections.” In it, the CIA, the FBI and the National Security Agency (NSA), collectively referring to themselves as the “intelligence community,” concluded that Kremlin operatives used cyber methods to achieve a clear objective: “to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary [Hillary] Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency.” The Washington Post and other news outlets have already covered details of the report, including the 11 key lines.

Here’s what we learned: “Political warfare” in cyberspace has come of age. Great powers have begun to attack their enemies’ credibility through cyber operations and propaganda spread in comment fields, social media and cable news broadcasts.

The DNC email hack didn’t tell us much. Here’s why cyberattacks have limited punch.

Social science can illuminate the new style of conflict in our connected world.

Can we attribute the attack to Russia?

Those behind this attack made sure they could plausibly deny they were its authors. Russian intelligence services distributed their work through many layers — from Guccifer 2.0 to WikiLeaks — so that tracing the attacks back to Russia would be difficult.

This web of intermediaries results in what cybersecurity scholars call the “attribution problem.” If you cannot attribute an attack, how can you retaliate? Researchers such as Thomas Rid and Jon Lindsay have noted that the more severe the attack, the more likely the target can identify the attacker, because more digital “fingerprints” can be found. Extensive forensics reports support the intelligence community’s concise analysis, along with Rid’s earlier exposé.

What motivated Russia to hack the U.S. election?

As we point out in our book “Cyber War Versus Cyber Realities,” most cyber operations are part of an ongoing territorial conflict. The more vital the interest, the larger the range of options a state will employ to advance its goals.

The report notes that Russia sees the United States as a threat. Russian President Vladimir Putin believes that the United States was behind the leak of the Panama Papers, which shows how Putin and his inner circle are storing state resources in offshore accounts for their personal use. He also believes that the United States was behind an insider’s exposure of Russia’s Olympic doping scandals. And, as the report notes, Putin holds former secretary of state Clinton responsible for “inciting mass protests against his regime in late 2011 and early 2012.”

More immediately, Russia’s goals included punishing the United States in general and Clinton in particular; shifting the United States closer to lifting sanctions; getting its de facto possession of Crimea recognized or ignored; and having Washington defer to Russia’s influence everywhere from the Baltics to the Middle East.

Besides leaks, how did Russia try to influence the election?

In addition to the cyberattacks and WikiLeaks, the IC report details how the Russian state uses RT, formerly Russia Today, as a propaganda outlet with 9 million viewers. The report emphasizes that RT promoted stories harmful to Clinton, including a false report claiming that all of the Clinton Foundation’s money went to themselves.

Russia’s information warfare operations also include a “troll army” on social media platforms. These operatives use “false flag” and “gaslighting” techniques to move unsuspecting users into pro-Russian stances and narratives — including discontent with and distrust of U.S. institutions in general and Clinton in particular.

Russian operatives, it seems, are once again using the old Soviet tactic of reflexive control, applying it to the cyber era. Reflexive control seeks to manipulate the target to take a position that helps the attacker.

Will Russia continue hacking? 

All these are the tactics of a weak and declining power that is fighting for influence. Russian total GDP is closer to that of Italy than to Germany, despite the vast differences in population. Saudi Arabia spent more on defense last year than Russia did.

Russia acts in cyberspace — and will continue to do so — because it has few options. Harassing, undermining and challenging the United States in the shadows are the tactics of a state fighting for influence.

Russia fails more often than it succeeds. The political effects of Russian information warfare are often precisely the opposite of its intent. For instance, as we noted in our book “Russia’s Coercive Diplomacy,” after Russia’s cyberattacks on Estonia in 2007, the tiny nation is now firmly entrenched as NATO’s cybersecurity center.

As we point out in a recent article, the great majority of Russia’s cyber operations involve low-severity espionage. Actors can deface websites and steal information. Effectively coercing cyberspace targets is rare.

Did the Kremlin’s information warfare campaign sway the U.S. election?

There’s no way to know for sure. No evidence of a direct link between the hacks and the outcome exists. No poll suggested that any voter was swayed by WikiLeaks’ releases.

Did Russian hackers elect the U.S. president? Don’t believe the hype.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not true. In social science, we have difficulty dealing with complex systems and non-linear causal chains. In these situations, events such as the WikiLeaks email release, persistent negative coverage through RT, and countless trolls can push public opinion over a threshold. Small acts can have disproportionately large outcomes. And whether or not Russian information attacks tipped the election, they certainly didn’t help Clinton or build confidence in U.S. political institutions.

We’ve glimpsed the future of international competition

Sometimes we glimpse a changed future for strategic competition. The battles of the Spanish Civil War showed the coming age of mechanized warfare and aerial bombardment. George Kennan’s 1948 memo outlines the pattern of the emerging Cold War, with coercive actions that would keep the entire world on edge for more than a generation. Friday’s intelligence report offers another such glimpse.

Brandon Valeriano is the Bren Chair of Armed Politics at the Marine Corps University and a reader at Cardiff University. He is also a fellow at the Niskanen Center.

Ryan C. Maness is a research fellow in security and resilience studies in the department of political science at Northeastern University.

Benjamin Jensen is an associate professor at Marine Corps University and a scholar-in-residence at American University.