The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

No matter what Trump says, Russia is unique in trying to hack other countries’ democracies

Both President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke about Russian interference in U.S. elections at a 2018 news conference in Helsinki. (Video: The Washington Post)

Not everyone hacks democracy. States don’t “all do it,” as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) contends — “it” being Russia’s 2016 efforts to weaponize various online tools to interfere in the U.S. election. And President Trump is simply wrong when he suggests that, as Russian President Vladimir Putin claims, Russia did no such thing.

In fact, according to our research on cyber conflict between rival nations since 2000, Russia is unique in how it has used a mix of cyberpower and propaganda to attack electoral institutions and undermine faith in the democratic process. Other nations may use cyber methods to directly sabotage or spy on military installations; Russia stands alone in trying instead to disrupt democracy and public trust.

Over that time, Kremlin operatives have used cyber tools to target a wide variety of democratic elections, referendums and public policy discussions, including not just the United States but also elections in Ukraine and France and key referendums such as Brexit. Russia combines such cyber operations with propaganda to amplify social fault lines, polarize public opinion and undermine the integrity of Western democratic institutions. Left unchecked, Russia’s 21st century political warfare campaigns could continue to undermine democracy.

When does Russian propaganda work — and when does it backfire? Here’s what we found.

Here’s how we did our research — and what we found out about Russian cyber operations

Our new book “Cyber Strategy” reveals a distinctively Russian approach to political cyber operations, by which we mean efforts to use digital tools for strategic espionage. To research this, we gathered information from all available public sources about every known effort by a national government to interfere with, disrupt or influence a rival power’s policies or politics via digital operations from 2000 to 2014. These attempts at cyber interference included a wide variety of efforts, such as attacks on servers, infiltrations, keystroke loggers, password breaking and efforts to take over command and control operations.

And our data set shows that Russia launches significantly more cyber disruptions — including stealing information and DDoS-type attacks — than other major nation-states.

If Putin has kompromat on Trump, how might he use it?

Significantly, Russia’s cyberattacks often involve key propaganda narratives. In other words, the Kremlin uses cyberattacks as part of a larger strategy of reflexive control, operations designed to shape other states’ perspectives and perceptions about the designs of Russia.

That’s because the Kremlin elite are updating old approaches to propaganda and political sabotage to be carried out by new technology. In fact, according to scholar Keir Giles, Russian leaders think that these influence operations, conducted via social media and cyber invasions, may be able to replace military interventions, enabling Russia to throw rival nations off balance, at a much lower cost.

How do other governments use cyber tools?

That’s a different strategic approach from that of other leading cyber powers. Our research shows that nations such as the United States and Israel prefer to infiltrate enemy networks and precisely target and attack key military and government systems. For instance, the United States and Israel created Stuxnet, a computer virus that successfully sabotaged Iran’s uranium enrichment centrifuges. The United States also apparently worked to infiltrate and sabotage North Korea’s missile launch and navigation systems, called “left of launch” efforts.

China, meanwhile, primarily hacks other nations’ systems for military and industrial espionage purposes. For instance, recently, China hacked a U.S. Navy contractor for the traditional espionage purpose of stealing sensitive data on submarine warfare. China also targeted the U.S. Office of Personnel Management’s security clearance data, potentially identifying U.S. spies who are working in China — or finding ethnic Chinese already working in the U.S. government who might be persuaded to spy for China.

Russia’s efforts are unique

Russia stands out from other nations in uniquely using cyber methods to distort, gaslight and alter the views of the target population. Other authoritarian states use cyber methods to rig their own elections. But Russia remains rare among great powers in its targets and methods.

Hacking the Democratic National Committee deviates significantly from other nations’ hacking attempts. Instead of destabilizing weapons systems, the Russian hack tried to extract private information and reinsert it into public discussion to destabilize the democratic process.

U.S. intelligence services have concluded that Russia is conducting political warfare to alter the hearts and minds in its rival power’s population. That’s a far cry from what any other nations are attempting.

Brandon Valeriano is the Donald Bren chair of armed politics at the Marine Corps University and an adjunct fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Benjamin Jensen is an associate professor at the Marine Corps University, a scholar-in-residence at American University, and an adjunct fellow at the Atlantic Council.

With Ryan Maness, they jointly wrote “Cyber Strategy: The Evolving Character of Power and Coercion” (Oxford University Press, 2018).