A federal grand jury has indicted six Russian GRU officers on a wide variety of cyber crimes that show just how aggressive Vladimir Putin’s Russia has gotten against the West, and specifically the United States.
The targets of the Russian military hacks included the Ukrainian power grid, the 2018 Winter Olympics, and an operation that targeted the 2017 French elections.
NotPetya, which began in Ukraine, quickly escaped, causing devastating losses for companies around the world. The shipping giant Maersk saw its entire operation temporarily collapse as the malware locked up its computer systems. A White House report estimated the malware’s total damages at $10 billion, according to Wired. It was the most destructive and widespread malware outbreak in history.
“No country has weaponized its cyber capabilities as maliciously and irresponsibly as Russia, wantonly causing unprecedented collateral damage to pursue small tactical advantages and fits of spite,” John Demers, the head of the Justice Department’s National Security Division, said at a news conference.
It appears these criminals were very busy.
The hacking campaign included other attacks that furthered Russia’s strategic interests, the U.S. charged, including spearphishing and mobile malware campaigns targeting athletes and other people involved in the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, from which Russian athletes were banned due to a doping scandal. Those attacks culminated with malware that disrupted the Olympics’ opening ceremonies.
According to the indictment, the men also conducted widespread digital attacks on companies and government agencies in Georgia, the former Soviet republic where Russia has increasingly asserted itself since a short 2008 war.
How do you retaliate against such attacks? Our own cyber warriors could crash the Russian power grid or cause some other major disaster. But would only force the Kremlin to respond in kind. We’d end up on the losing end of that exchange.
We sanction the Russian state, Putin, and his cronies to little effect. Putin acts with Impunity because, in the end, he knows that realistically, there is little that can be done to stop him.
The same is true of China and other U.S. enemies. So far, we have chosen not to escalate the cyberwar because of the potential damage from any retaliatory strike. It’s an unsatisfactory state of affairs. Russia and China are daring the United States to go to war over what amounts to cyber pinpricks and the U.S. is not taking the bait.
Meanwhile, the U.S. has an election to hold and Democrats have been hysterically warning about Russian hackers hijacking the vote. This is exactly what Putin wants.
But whether the United States’ rivals actually do hack the country’s election infrastructure this year is almost beside the point. What matters is people’s belief that interference campaigns are working. A February poll by the Economist and YouGov showed that a majority of Americans don’t think their country can defend itself against foreign election interference. Whatever the outcome in November, then, there’s reason to believe that supporters of the losing side may believe that foreign powers sabotaged the vote and will insist on the result’s invalidity. In that sense, it doesn’t matter whether China, Russia, or any other country in fact manages to sway the ballot. What matters is whether voters believe they did.
Thanks to Democrats who have been warning that Russia and China want Trump to win, confidence in America’s electoral system is low. It’s a continuation of the narrative that Hillary Clinton lost in 2016 because Russia colluded with the Trump campaign to place ads on social media that were supposed to have swayed millions of voters to vote for Trump.
It was a false narrative then, it was proven false by numerous investigations, and continues to be false to this day.
But the Democrats figure it worked once. Why not try it again?