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Ivan the Hackable: Russian Objectives in Cyber Warfare

By Brenna McKee | April 13, 2018

The information era has brought upon the advent of international cyber warfare and espionage, reshaping how academics and experts in the field define national security concerns. States and their militaries, economies, and even private sector firms are constantly at risk of foreign powers’ data gathering, meddling, or even sabotage via the cyber network. Cyber surveillance and interference has become a tool employed by federal governments to achieve an end goal in their international relations.

From North Korea, for example, it was used as a punitive measure towards a private firm, for the production of a movie North Korean officials deemed slanderous and disrespectful. From China, it has been used to improve military prowess and gather intelligence on other states’ militaries. Perhaps most notably, it was recently employed by Russian government officials and their proxies to invite (more) controversy into American politics and foment resentments between members of the two political parties. This Russian cyber activity can be examined as a mechanism the Kremlin has employed to reach its ultimate goal: to destabilize the world’s last remaining superpower, to distract the US from global ambitions and turn its focus to domestic matters, and more generally, to delegitimize democracy and question its role as the only acceptable form of governance.

As the Cold War came to a close and the tensions between the US and USSR cooled, officials in each government saw the collapse of the Soviet Union in starkly different terms. In the US, attitudes were hopeful about the future of working with the new Russia. As a result, US focus on intelligence gathering and espionage waned. In Russia, however, it appears that interest in espionage only faltered inasmuch as the Russian government was unable to operate large scale federal programs in the early 1990s. As the Russian economy returned to a high-functioning state and Russian producers entered the world market, cyber-espionage emerged as a new, cutting edge espionage technique. Thus, Russian disinformation campaigns inundated the US public with controversial and divisive articles published at third and fourth tier news outlets during the 2016 election cycle. These article were able to take advantage of the fact that the US government did not have a coherent counter-strategy to Russian cyberwar.

Russia has targeted the United States in both large scale disinformation and hacking campaigns to call into question the legitimacy of its place as a world leader. By no means has the United States been the only target of Russia’s cyber attacks, espionage, or disinformation agenda. However, there is a specific role the US plays in international affairs that Moscow seeks very seriously to damage: the US is not only a world leader, representing the role that Russia could have had after the Cold War, it is also the world’s most powerful democracy. It appears that Russia is continuing its Cold War era spying and infiltrating in order to force the US out of the limelight that may be viewed in Moscow as rightfully belonging to the Russians.

More importantly, Russia’s efforts against American government, citizens, and institutions have sought to delegitimize democracy in general, and challenge its role as the best or only palatable form of governance among world leaders. As the antithesis to Russia’s autocratic government, which functions within the cult of personality surrounding Vladimir Putin, the notion that democracy is the only legitimate form of government across the Western world poses an existential threat to Russia’s current regime. Thus, Russia has attacked the world’s most powerful democracy in an effort to contest the success of its governance type. By disseminating false and divisive information, and hacking into sensitive information and releasing it to cause further discord, Russian “trolls” were able to force American citizens to confront questions about the strength, transparency and legitimacy of their own government’s institutions. I believe this was an unexpected but positive result for Russia’s government, which originally aimed to use these techniques and call democracy’s legitimacy into question in order to drive a wedge between the US and fledgling democracies in what was formerly Russia’s sphere of influence.

A final motivation in Russia’s campaign to sow discord among American citizens and between political parties may have been to further distract the US from its global aims, and to refocus the federal government’s concerns on domestic affairs. Forcing the US to turn inward, away from global leadership and thus, away from its regular and recurring condemnation of Russia’s human rights abuses and repressive political norms, allows Russia to operate more freely – especially in countries formerly of the Eastern Bloc. While the world over has seen a roll back of democratic governance, liberal norms and civil rights, there is reason to believe that the relatively new democracies in central Europe, like Poland and Slovakia, would be receiving greater attention from the US, were it under a less isolationist administration. This division was Russia’s ultimate goal in the long game. That the superpower is ruled by a president relatively sympathetic to Russian aims is simply an added benefit, though it makes for dramatic news.

For decades the US has engaged in democracy promotion around the world, and now, it seems, the Russian government is beginning to play a role in democracy destruction. In democracies across the world that are barely older than the millennial generation, Russia is seeking to disrupt the belief that democracy is the best and only way forward. In the most powerful democracy in the world, Russia’s aims focus on domestic disruption, both to turn public and government attention away from Russian behavior that is less than laudable, and to damage the United States’ role as a world leader.


Brenna McKee is the current JIPS Editor In Chief.  She is studying International Politics with a focus on Latin America at GPS. She earned her undergraduate degree in International Relations and Latin American History from Rollins College, where she was a junior editor for the publication Agricultural History. Her Fulbright experience in Viet Nam also nurtured her interest in Southeast Asian affairs. She aims to apply the skills she is learning at GPS to support developing countries in the future. When she is not busy, she enjoys reading and playing soccer. 


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