For the past few years, Russia has been playing with some asymmetric advantages -- on- and offline. While investing in costly conventional assets to increase its military edge, such as a new hypersonic weapon, Russia has also mobilized aggressive assets in cyberspace. Its cyberwarriors have penetrated some of the United States most critical pieces of infrastructure, from election systems to nuclear power plants and electric grids -- as well as private homes.
In addition to hacking into key infrastructure, Russia has also used its cyberwarriors to engage in a sophisticated information warfare campaign with a broad target audience -- the American people.
And while President Donald Trump promulgates Russian propaganda about the 2016 election -- giving Russia s information operations a major boost -- he has also given members of his team the authorization to chip away at Russia s online operational advantages, as well as those of other foreign countries.
Though Trump may continue to spread Russian conspiracies in the year to come, we must hope he also continues to prioritize offensive cyber operations as part of a key strategy to deter Russian aggression.
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Senior US government officials have publicly stated under oath that Russian efforts to interfere in our elections are ongoing. Despite efforts to punish and deter foreign election interference, we have not succeeded in changing the cost-benefit calculation for the actors involved in directing or participating in these attacks.
As we head into an election year, we should expect countries such as Russia to kick their operations into high gear. 2020 is prime time for Putin -- his internet trolls and bots have endless, divisive content to amplify online, unless we figure out a way to stop them.
Defending our interests from cyberattack -- and also deterring them before they happen -- is a complex undertaking, and the Trump administration has thankfully streamlined the resources we have available.
The administration elevated Cyber Command (CyberCom) to a unified combatant command in 2018 with a mission to integrate and conduct "full-spectrum cyberspace operations, electronic warfare, and information operations, ensuring freedom of action for friendly forces in and through the cyber domain and the information environment, while denying the same to our adversaries." In other words, CyberCom s mission expressly fits within the Defense Department s larger cyberstrategy, which specifically calls out persistent campaigns by Russia to influence Americans.
The United States has engaged in information operations and overt public diplomacy in the past, using both civilian and military assets. But by giving CyberCom the ability to integrate and conduct these operations online, the administration took an important step to modernize our information operations and protect our democracy.
And Trump s decision to delegate decision-making authority to the Pentagon for offensive cyber operations has probably made the approval process faster because decisions do not necessarily have to be vetted through an interagency process and get the sign-off from the President each time.
With the authorities and resources available to launch calibrated attacks for both defensive and deterrent purposes, our cyberspace force has gone to work and may up the ante in the run-up to the 2020 election.
Since the 2018 midterm election, the administration has engaged in offensive online operations aimed at influencing specific target audiences -- namely Russians involved in interfering in our elections.
CyberCom reportedly took the Internet Research Agency -- a Russian troll farm that the administration has accused and sanctioned for interfering in our 2016 elections -- offline to prevent it from spreading disinformation during the midterms. And The Washington Post reported that CyberCom also engaged in calibrated online information operations -- known as cyber psyops -- sending direct messages to Russians working at the agency, telling them Americans know who they are and are tracking their work.
We don t know whether any of those targeted stopped working at the Russian agency, but new reporting suggests CyberCom may be broadening its target list to include members of the Russian security apparatus and Russian oligarchs.
Leveling the playing field
While stepping up online information operations, the administration has also tried to level the playing field in other ways, including through offensive cyber operations against Russian electric grids. Our cyber operations are likely intended to send a warning that the United States is poised to inflict damage on these grids if necessary, including if Russia takes action against our own infrastructure here at home. And since Russia has placed itself in a similar position with respect to our key infrastructure, the risk of engaging in a tit-for-tat escalatory cycle is high.
US cyber operations against specific Russian targets are a drop in the bucket when compared to the information warfare campaign that Russia has and is engaging in against Americans. But they are an important step toward signaling to Russia that its actions have consequences -- and that its asymmetric advantages may be eroding.
If integrated into a broader deterrence strategy and properly calibrated, these cybercampaigns are an appropriate step toward modernizing the tools in our toolkit -- and better protecting American national security interests.