Russia’s Cyber Battleground

Russia’s Cyber Battleground

How Russia utilizes its cyber capabilities as a weapon.
Leah Widener

Russia is increasingly utilizing cyber-attacks and maneuvers to achieve its tactical goals. By means of hacking, social media influence operations, and misinformation campaigns, Russia is attempting to sow discord in the U.S. and throughout the world. While Russian cyber operations have been conducted for years, they were brought to the forefront of the U.S. public when the news broke that Russia was meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Russia has used its cyber capabilities to increase divisiveness in competing nations and infiltrate their information systems.


The Russian involvement in the 2016 U.S. elections was the first major indicator that Russia was regularly using its cyber capabilities offensively. The hack of the Democratic National Committee was perpetrated by Russian hackers. These hackers subsequently released the information that was gleaned during the hack directly before the Democratic Convention. [1] Other Russian election interference took the form of online bots and trolls. An employee of the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a Russian “troll factory,” stated that the goal of this interference was to “provoke unrest and discontent.” [2] U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller reached the same conclusion in his indictment of the IRA, stating that its goal was “to sow discord in the U.S. political system.” [3] Putin has avidly denied the assertion that the Russian government was behind the hacks. Although the hacker used the moniker Guccifer 2.0 and claimed to be Romanian, an ODNI report stated with high confidence that “Russian military intelligence used the Guccifer 2.0 persona and DCLeaks.com to release… and [relay] material to WikiLeaks.” [4]


U.S. officials were concerned that Russia might try to influence election results again during the 2018 elections. DNI Dan Coats stated that there was a “pervasive messaging campaign by Russia to try to weaken and divide the United States.” [5] It appears that those concerns may have been well founded. Cyber security senior analyst Kris Shaffer states that while the same tactics wern’t used, Russian involvement may have increased since the 2016 election. There are potentially hundreds of websites that serve as Russian propaganda outlets directed at U.S. readers. These websites have continued the trend of spreading misinformation among American voters. [6] To top that off, on Election Day, Facebook and Instagram removed over a hundred accounts with suspected connections to the IRA. [7] However, Russian hackers made no attempt to hack into election systems and manipulate votes. [8]


However, Russian influence operations target more than just elections. Russian hackers attempt to sow social discord as well as political discord. One influence operation specifically targets U.S. military personnel and attempts to engender Russian sympathy in service members. This is accomplished through the creation of fake Twitter accounts claiming to have ties to the U.S. military. [9] Another way that Russia has utilized its cyber capabilities is to enhance its espionage capabilities. Aside from attempting to steal intellectual property, Russian hackers have tried to infiltrate routers, firewalls, and other electronic equipment in the U.S. In some scenarios, such as the attempted hack of Westinghouse Electric Company, they target businesses that are tied to infrastructure. [10] In others, they simply take control of internet routers in the homes of average citizens. [11] These uses point to Russia considering cyberattacks to be a legitimate form of warfare. If Russian hackers can get through enough electronic doors, it could enable them to shut down financial systems or energy grids. In this scenario, cyber warfare is a real threat. [12]


Online Russian media outlets and social media accounts have also sought to sow discord through misinformation. After the military coup in Turkey, New Eastern Outlook, a Russian media website, posted an article that stated that the U.S. supported the coup in Turkey and that the U.S. National Security Advisor knew about the coup beforehand. This information was a blatant fabrication. Despite this fact, it was proliferated through social media in Turkey and was an effort to harm relations between Turkey and the U.S. [13] Russia identifies polarizing issues, like the Turkish military coup, and then exploits them. Another example of this is the tweets about vaccinations that Russian bots proliferated in the U.S. Tweets both opposing and supporting vaccinations were posted by fake accounts in an attempt to divide the American public. The language in these tweets was antagonistic and directed at breaking down trust in government supported vaccinations. It was also meant to further polarize those who disagree on the issue. [14] Russian misinformation campaigns are highly targeted and designed to subtly influence citizens and increase discord.


Russia’s hacking operations extend beyond the U.S. into Europe. England, Germany, France, and the Netherlands have all charged Russia with various hacking attempts or cyber-attacks. They all anticipated and experienced Russian interference in their 2017 elections. This interference came in the forms of both misinformation campaigns and outright hacking attempts. [15] There were also charges unrelated to politics, such as a cyberattack against a TV network in the UK. [16] The Canadian government filed criminal proceedings against two Russians who are accused of attempting to hack a Canadian office of the World Anti-Doping Agency. [17] All of these attacks demonstrate the frequency and variety of Russian hacking operations.


The U.S. Cyber Command is specifically targeting Russian influence operations. The Cyber Command has launched its first offensive against Russian hacking attempts in the U.S. While the specific details of this operation have not been released, it seeks to discourage individual Russian hackers from continuing by alerting them that they have been found out. [18] This may be accomplished by means such as phishing emails. [19] Furthermore, the US has offered to provide NATO allies assistance in the form of cyber capabilities in response to Russia’s increasing cyber offensive. [20]


The cyber domain is the new battlefront and U.S. policy must change to reflect that. The U.S. must counter any cyber interference, from Russia or any other country, in order to avoid catastrophe. One step the U.S. government could take to counter Russian cyber interference is to increase awareness about the misinformation that’s being spread. Assisting American citizens in recognizing signs of misinformation will go a long way to decrease its effectiveness. The U.S. government should also continue its shift toward offensive cyber operations. Cyber operations must be treated and utilized as a weapon.

  1. Philip Bump, “Here’s the public evidence that supports the idea that Russia interfered in the 2016 election,” Washington Post, 6 July 2017. https:// www.washingtonpost.com/news/ politics/wp/2017/07/06/heres-the-public -evidence-that-supports-the-idea-thatrussia-interfered-in-the-2016-election/? utm_term=.c514feb0d0e0
  2. Brennan Weiss, “A Russian troll factory had a $1.25 million monthly budget to interfere in the 2016 US election,” Business Insider, 16 February 2018, https://www.businessinsider.com/ russian-troll-farm-spent-millions-onelection-interference-2018-2
  3. Jonathan Masters, “Russia, Trump, and the 2016 U.S. Election,” Council on Foreign Relations, 26 February 2018, https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/ russia-trump-and-2016-us-election
  4. Mike Wendling, “Conversations with a hacker: What Guccifer 2.0 told me,” BBC News, 14 January 2017 https:// www.bbc.com/news/blogs-trending38610402
  5. Rebecca Ballhaus and Dustin Volz, “U.S. Intelligence Officials Warn of ‘Pervasive’ Russian Efforts to Disrupt 2018 Elections,” The Wall Street Journal, 3 August 2018, https://www.wsj.com/ articles/u-s-intelligence-officials-warn-ofpervasive-russian-efforts-to-disrupt-2018 -elections-1533235652
  6. Jonathon Morgan and Ryan Fox, “Russians Meddling in the Midterms? Here’s the Data,” The New York Times, 6 November 2018, https:// www.nytimes.com/2018/11/06/opinion/midterm-elections-russia.html
  7. “Facebook takes down fake accounts over Russian troll farm concerns,” Fox5, 7 November 2018, https:// fox5sandiego.com/2018/11/07/facebook -takes-down-fake-accounts-over-russiantroll-farm-concerns/
  8. Eli Lake, “Why Russian hackers didn’t strike during the midterm elections,” New York Post, 10 November 2018, https://nypost.com/2018/11/10/whyrussian-hackers-didnt-strike-during-themidterms/
  9. Alex Hollings, “Russia’s influence campaign has set its sights on US troops and no one is sure how to address it,” NewsRep, 6 November 2018, https:// thenewsrep.com/110046/russiasinfluence-campaign-has-set-its-sights-onus-troops-and-no-one-is-sure-how-toaddress-it/
  10. Sarah N. Lynch, Lisa Lambert, and Christopher Bing, “ U.S. indicts Russia in hacking of nuclear company Westinghouse,” Reuters, 4 October 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usarussia-cyber/us-indicts-russians-inhacking-of-nuclear-companywestinghouse-idUSKCN1ME1U6
  11. Thomas Brewster, “UK And US Accuse Russia of Hacking Home Routers in Global Cyber Attacks,” Forbes, 16 April 2018, https://www.forbes.com/sites/ thomasbrewster/2018/04/16/russiaaccused-of-hacking-networkinfrastructure/#322a87b5744e
  12. Bart Jansen and Elizabeth Weise, “Russia is sponsoring cyberattacks in U.S. homes and businesses, U.S. and U.K. officials warn,” USA Today, 16 April 2018, https://www.usatoday.com/story/ news/2018/04/16/russia-sponsoringcyberattacks-u-s-homes-and-businessesu-s-and-u-k-officials-warn/520981002/
  13. Katherine Costello, “Russia’s Use of Media and Information Operations in Turkey,” Rand Corporation, 2018, https://www.rand.org/pubs/ perspectives/PE278.html
  14. Russia trolls ‘spreading vaccination misinformation,’ to create discord,” BBC News, 24 August 2018, https:// www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada45294192
  15. Erik Brattberg and Tim Maurer, “Russian Election Interference: Europe’s Counter to Fake News and Cyber Attacks,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 23 May 2018, https:// carnegieendowment.org/2018/05/23/ russian-election-interference-europe-scounter-to-fake-news-and-cyber-attackspub-76435
  16. “Russia cyber-plots: US, UK and Netherlands allege hacking,” BBC, 4 October 2018, https://www.bbc.com/news/world -europe-45746837
  17. “Swiss launch criminal proceedings against alleged Russian spies,” The Local, 24 October 2018, https:// www.thelocal.ch/20181024/swiss-launch -criminal-proceedings-against-allegedrussian-spies
  18. Julian E. Barnes, “U.S. Begins First Cyberoperation Against Russia Aimed at Protecting Elections,” New York Times, 23 October 2018, https:// www.nytimes.com/2018/10/23/us/ politics/russian-hacking-usa-cybercommand.html
  19. Barbara Starr, “US launches cyber operations against Russians meddling in midterms,” CNN, 23 October 2018, https://www.cnn.com/2018/10/23/ politics/us-cyber-operations-russianmeddling/index.html
  20. Idrees Ali, “With an eye on Russia, U.S. pledges to use cyber capabilities on behalf of NATO,” Reuters, 3 October 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/ us-usa-nato-russia-cyber/with-an-eye-on -russia-u-s-pledges-to-use-cybercapabilities-on-behalf-of-natoidUSKCN1MD0CB

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