“Russian Cyber Attacks and the New Cold War.” (From our Forums.)

Cyber Secure Central
Mar 28 · 6 min read

Text originally published by Timothy Ogden on the Cyber Secure Central Forums.

Tensions between a resurgent Russia and the West have led to a multitude of politicians and media outlets describing this era as the New Cold War, and this comparison certainly has merit: both NATO and Moscow are backing different factions in conflicts that could be dubbed proxy wars, and the installation of American missile defence systems in Eastern Europe has caused outrage in the Kremlin.

Of course, the casualty numbers of recent fighting between Western-backed factions in Ukraine, Syria and Georgia (and those of their Russian-supported enemies) are eclipsed by those from Vietnam in the 1960s or Afghanistan two decades later, and despite Moscow’s fury over US Patriot missile batteries in Poland, matters have not escalated to the heights of the Cuban Missile Crisis and Mutually Assured Destruction.

Yet these comparisons are, despite their initial appearances, not all that thin, nor is the overall definition of early 21st century geopolitics as Cold War Lite: of course, there is no longer any overt ideological struggle between Washington and Moscow, and with the rise of international terrorism and Chinese economic power, American and Western priorities have shifted away from the Kremlin.

Perhaps the politicians and diplomats of the 1990s believed that Russia could be written off as an enemy of yesteryear, just as their predecessors had done with Germany after the Second World War; terrorism, therefore, became the threat for the 1990s, instead of Communism, in something of the same manner as Communism itself had replaced fascism for the Cold War period. This idea that the West’s enemies manifest themselves in an orderly linear fashion is, at a conservative estimate, unrealistic, but it appears to have been taken seriously given the lack of effort in curbing Russian aggression since the 2000s. Furthermore, it is demonstrably the case that Russia resurgent is also Russia revenant.

The invasions of aspiring NATO members and the assassination of Russian opponents to the Putin regime in Western countries would suggest that Moscow is content to re-ignite the tensions of the past by using past methods, but as part of this latest incarnation of the struggle of White House vs Kremlin, Russia has taken the conflict into an entirely new theatre.

The idea that Russia could exert influence on Western political processes was the stuff of Cold War nightmares, but this has now come to pass. The notion that Lee Harvey Oswald (a would-be Soviet citizen who defected before eventually returning home) was working for the KGB when he assassinated President Kennedy remains firmly in the realm of conspiracy theories, but the US Department of Homeland Security has admitted that Russian hackers were able to break into the registration rolls of 21 states during the 2016 presidential election. Further alarm has been raised over possible Russian attempts to affect the results of the UK’s 2016 referendum to leave the European Union and the French elections of 2017.

It is clear that the West has been caught flat-footed and unprepared to face the latest Russian menace, whose hackers seem as inexorable as the endless battalions of Soviet tanks of an earlier generation. Western security agencies have succeeded in preventing far more terrorist attacks than have been carried out, and did score a success against Moscow by breaking the ‘Illegals Ring’ of spies 2014, in which Russian sleeper agents were exposed and apprehended. Yet overall the West has been revealed to be woefully inadequate to tackle the true Russian spies of Cold War 2.0; the Illegals Ring affair was mocked as being a far cry from prior Soviet ambition (with spies having flimsy false identities, an often weak grasp of English, and apparently petty objectives compared to their Cold War predecessors) but the last laugh rested with the Kremlin, as its hackers have been able to attack Western political processes with impunity, and the West has learned that real Russian espionage can be conducted from the comfort and safety of an office.

With a buckling Macron presidency in France, Britain floundering in political turmoil, the sunset of the Merkel years in Germany, and the looming American presidential election of 2020, the West has little time to bolster its defences. The US mid-term elections of 2018 did not suffer the scale of attacks of the presidential race two years prior, but the 2020 contest will be unlikely to be left untouched. This issue is relevant on a budgetary as well as a political level, since significantly more money will be required by campaign teams to invest in cyber security. On the campaign trail, cyber security experts could become even more important than press advisers and chiefs of staff; the field of cyber defence has already become a talking point for Democrats seeking a nomination, in comparison with the previous election, in which it was only referred to in the context of terrorists making use of commercially-available encrypted messaging services.

Of course, the West has not been idle. The US Department of Homeland Security has taken steps to prevent a repeat of 2016 happening in 2020, blacklisting potentially hostile IP addresses, coordinating security measures with representatives of 45 states, and offered training to local election workers. In addition, Microsoft and Facebook have made strides of their own, with the former blocking fake accounts (which were used as part of Russian fake news efforts in 2016) and the latter successfully halting cyber assaults on three candidates for Congress.

Yet one might wonder if these disjointed efforts will prove sufficient to withstand any future hacking attempts; it will require significant coordination between government bodies and all the individual representatives of the private sector to be successful against an opponent whose own efforts are, above all, very precisely coordinated. If there are too many moving parts in America’s web of defence then Russian hackers could conceivably break through the lines.

Given the long history of tensions between Moscow and the West, electoral interference is a comparatively recent tactic, but it may not be the only weapon in Russia’s cyber arsenal for the future. Jens Stoltenberg, Secretary General of NATO, has said “we do not want a new Cold War and a new arms race with Russia”, but the alliance’s wants are irrelevant; a new Cold War is upon it already. Yet while modern Russian invasions, territorial incursions and treaty violations may have twentieth-century counterparts and precedents, shadow cyber-warfare is an entirely new theatre of conflict that the West must adapt to. Coordinated defence efforts must be able to move with an ever-evolving sector; the first test is a little over a year away.

Disclaimer

The content of this article does not reflect the official opinion of Cyber Secure Central. Responsibility for the information and views expressed in the article lies entirely with the author(s).

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