SPECIAL SERIES:Cybersecurity: The Next Great Battlefield
In this series of articles running through July, RealClearPolitics and RealClearDefense take an in-depth look at the intersection of cybersecurity, technology, and warfare in the 21st century. Below is Part 7.
Four summers ago, over the skies of eastern Ukraine, the twisted fragments of a disintegrating Boeing 777 plummeted to earth. The aircraft, owned by Malaysian Airlines, had taken off six hours earlier from the Netherlands, with an intended destination of Kuala Lumpur. It carried 283 passengers, most of them Dutch civilians -- including 80 children -- and a crew of 15.
Along with the destroyed aircraft came the bodies. One woman in the rural village of Rozsypne said they “looked like confetti falling from the sky.” Deliberately targeting a passenger plane is a war crime. Even as a horrifying fog-of-war mistake, it was gruesome, however, and those responsible immediately began covering their tracks. But the perpetrators’ identity turned out to be a solvable mystery.
International investigative bodies soon identified the culprits. Malaysian Airline Flight 17 was shot down by ethnic Russian separatists fighting a proxy war for Moscow against Ukraine. The rebels received arms and training from the Russian Federation, and probably troop reinforcements as well. The weapon that downed the passenger plane was a BUK missile belonging to Russia’s 53rd anti-aircraft missile brigade. It was brought into Ukrainian territory the day before, and its launcher returned to Russia immediately after the attack. Intercepted communications show that the rebels who fired it believed they were aiming at a Ukrainian military transport plane.
The final report was made public two weeks ago. At a subsequent economic forum in St. Petersburg, Russian President Vladimir Putin was asked whether he would admit that a Russian missile had shot down the plane. “No, of course not,” Putin replied. “There are different versions of this tragedy, but no one takes them into account.”
Among those “different versions” previously offered by Russian officials or their proxies in pro-Russian media outlets were a torrent of contradictory and bizarre conspiracy theories:
--Ukrainian missile-launchers were in the vicinity.
--Putin’s own plane was the real target.
--A Ukrainian fighter pilot did it.
--The plane was full of dead bodies and was deliberately crashed.
This last bit of macabre nonsense was peddled by a shadowy pro-Putin rebel and onetime Russian military intelligence agent named Igor Girkin, alias “Strelkov.” In a classic case of psychological projection, he told journalists, “Ukrainian authorities are capable of any baseness.”
Such lies are arguably more despicable than blowing up an airplane, because they are callous and calculated. They obscure the underlying crime of Russian military aggression in Ukraine and cause pain to the family members of those who died. As for the young Ukrainian military pilot cynically blamed by Russian propagandists, he was thrown into clinical depression and this spring took his own life.
For those who lived through the Cold War, this episode induced a disturbing sense of déjà vu. In 1983, a Soviet military pilot under orders from his superiors downed Korean Air Lines Flight 007, with the loss of 269 lives, one of them a U.S. congressman. The Russian pilot, Gennadi Osipovich, believed he was engaging an RC-135 U.S. spy plane.
Instead of apologizing, Soviet officials prevaricated. Incapable of admitting error, they disputed that a plane had even crashed. When that absurd gambit fell flat, Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov – the 1983 version of Strelkov – claimed that Americans had disguised an RC-135 to look like a Boeing 747. As for those 269 civilians who donned oxygen masks and sat in terror for 12 minutes as the doomed aircraft fell from the sky, well, according to Russian officials, they never existed.
“We are back to 1983, and I don’t enjoy being 34 years younger in this way,” prominent Russian political scientist Sergey Rogov told the New Yorker magazine last year. “It’s frightening.”
Propaganda is not new to Russia, nor a uniquely Russian endeavor. But manipulating the populace by controlling information has been woven into the fabric of Russian life for a century before Lenin was born, was a key tenet of Marxism, was adopted by the Bolsheviks when they seized power, and became a trademark feature of Soviet society.
So what’s new now? The short answer is digital technology, which enables a new kind of warfare: cyberwar. In December 2015, when few American political experts, let alone Putin, believed Donald Trump would become the next U.S. president, Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work delivered a speech warning about “the pressing need for…corrections in our defense program to meet evolving threats in our national security environment.”
The Russians jammed GPS signals, which caused Ukrainian drones to crash, and even neutralized fuses on Ukrainian artillery shells, rendering them useless.
The war in eastern Ukraine, Work said, was “an emerging laboratory for future 21st century warfare.” He described how Russian military units using advanced sensors, bolstered by small unmanned drones and backed up by highly capable collection platforms, had introduced “new levels of battlefield transparency and lethality.”
Ukrainian commanders realized to their horror that within minutes of turning on their field radios, Russian ordnance rained down on their positions. The Russians jammed GPS signals, which caused Ukrainian drones to crash, and even neutralized fuses on Ukrainian artillery shells, rendering them useless.
“The operations in Ukraine highlighted the new speed of war, driven by automated battle networks, boosted by advances in computing power, network attacks,” Work said. “We are moving at cyber speed and…this trend is only going to continue as advanced militaries experiment with these technologies, as well as others like hyper-sonics. In the not-too-distant future, we’ll see directed-energy weapons on the battlefield which operate at the speed of light.”
He didn’t mention another frightening feature of cyberwar, which is what the families of MH17 victims had experienced: cybertechnology’s unparalleled real-time ability to help the enemy alter perceptions of facts and truth all over the world.
These terms of engagement are known by names ranging from “hybrid” or “asymmetric” war to “nonlinear” and “cyberwar.” Implying, as it does, a new theater, cyber has been called the “fifth dimension” of war – the other four being land, sea, air, and space. Mark Galeotti, the scholar known for popularizing Russian Federation Gen. Valery Gerasimov’s musings on this topic, penned a book about it. “The more I think about what we should be calling hybrid war,” Galeotti said, “the more I think the answer is: ‘war.’”
Is this what the Russians are thinking? That’s hard to know, but the impulse to view control of information as a key weapon predates the digital age.
Disinformation and Deception
Vladimir Putin entered the world stage in a way that sounds like a literary device a Cold War novelist would use: In 1989, as the Berlin Wall fell, and euphoric East Germans were rushing into government buildings, loyal KGB agent Putin was in the basement of a Soviet compound in Dresden, shoving sensitive documents into a furnace.
A decade later, he was anointed Boris Yeltsin’s successor in Moscow. One of Putin’s earliest steps in consolidating power was ordering armed troops to raid the corporate headquarters of Vladimir Gusinsky, a media oligarch whose television stations, including the popular network NTV, reported on the brutal tactics of Russia’s war in Chechnya, and had also lampooned Yelstin. When they tried the same thing with Putin, he forced Gusinsky to sell NTV -- and then into exile.
It wasn’t supposed to work this way after the disintegration of the Soviet empire.
Early in Yeltsin’s tenure in the Kremlin, Scott Shane, a Moscow correspondent for the Baltimore Sun, wrote a provocative book about the changes in Russia titled “Dismantling Utopia.” Its thesis is two-fold: The first is that Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness) were attempts to strengthen, rather than weaken, Moscow-style socialism. In the old Soviet system, copiers were banned, the press was tightly controlled, maps were altered and, as Shane documented, even the scripts of stand-up comedians were carefully monitored.
It’s not that the citizenry was completely fooled by the relentless propaganda peddled by state-owned media outlets such as Pravda (“Truth”) and Izvestia (“News”). Every Russian adult knew the one-liner: “There is no truth in Pravda and no news in Izvestia.” But the regime’s hold on power wasn’t solely dependent on fake news. It was also dependent on the secret police. Gorbachev’s reforms implied that if Russians were free to speak the truth, there was also less to fear.
Scott Shane’s second thesis is that the emerging technologies would make it impossible for future leaders to put the genie of censorship back in the bottle. “The exploding arsenal of electronics -- cellular telephones, fax machines, VCRs, satellite dishes, computers with modems -- demonstrated a trend for technology to become more compact, portable, versatile and inexpensive,” Shane wrote. “As such, the new machines seemed to be weapons the citizen could wield against the state as readily as the state could use them on the citizen.”
Although Shane’s book was critically acclaimed, events did not work out this way. But why not?
Truth vs. Happiness
When Alexis de Tocqueville made his epic visit to America, he went with the idea of contrasting Russia and the United States. Although he wasn’t initially predisposed to favor one over the other, in his famous 1835 book, “Democracy in America,” Tocqueville revealed where he had come out.
"There are on earth today two great peoples who, having started from different points, seem to be advancing towards the same end: they are the Russians and the Anglo-Americans. ... America is struggling against obstacles of nature; Russia against men."
“There are on earth today two great peoples who, having started from different points, seem to be advancing towards the same end: they are the Russians and the Anglo-Americans. They both grew up in darkness; and whilst Europeans were busy elsewhere, they suddenly placed themselves in the forefront of nations. ... America is struggling against obstacles of nature; Russia against men.”
What did this mean, exactly? Tocqueville spelled it out: “The principal means of action for the one is liberty; for the other servitude.”
Back in France, Tocqueville had a friend, Astolphe de Custine, who decided to test this observation for himself. Apparently hoping to find a more positive side of Russia, the Marquis de Custine went to Russia in 1839. He spoke no Russian, was chaperoned by a tsarist official, and stayed only three months. Yet the book he produced, “Letters From Russia,” made a lasting impression.
“The nature of its government is interference, negligence, and corruption,” he wrote. “In that country a sincere man would be taken for an idiot.”
Custine concluded that every Russian he encountered concealed obvious truths from him, a trait he ascribes to his hosts’ sense of inferiority – and a desire to hide how fearful the people feel. “Everything is deception in Russia,” a Russian diplomat admits to him. “Russian despotism not only pays little respect to ideas and sentiments, it will also deny facts; it will struggle against evidence, and triumph in the struggle!”
As if to prove Custine’s point, his book was banned in Russia by the tsar, and later by Lenin. It wasn’t published in Russia until 1996. Perhaps because they had little recourse in the face of such censorship, ordinary Russians rationalized their plight with an old proverb: “Truth is good, but happiness is better.”
The Russian Revolution didn’t result in a diminishment of information control, but quite the opposite. It meant vastly increased control over domestic communication and an obsession with spreading Soviet propaganda throughout the world. By 1922, Stalin and the Politburo authorized a proposal to spread disinformation by using the media of democratic societies. This led directly to an initiative with a name, “Operation Trust,” that proved chilling given that its purpose was to use false pretenses to lure former revolutionaries who’d run afoul of Lenin back to Russia – where they were executed.
“All previous experiences paled before the extent to which deliberate lying, deception and misleading became a conscious choice in the forge of the Bolshevik special services,” notes Estonian politician Marko Mihkelson. “In the course of a century, many people from all over the world, from popes to presidents, from countries to international organizations, witnessed the disinformation skills of the [Soviet secret police] and the implementation of active influence measures in the service of Russian foreign policy.”
The word “disinformation” comes from Russia, rendered in that language as “dezinformatsiya.” It was reportedly coined by Stalin, who made it sound vaguely French, i.e. Western. It first appeared in the Soviets’ official encyclopedia in 1952, along with the explanation that it was a tactic used in the West against the Soviets. In other word, the entry defining disinformation was, itself, disinformation.
That term, in turn, is linked to another: maskirovka, which means “military deception.” Both were on display in the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea. The classic example of maskirovka was deploying Russian regulars into Crimea dressed in green uniforms with no insignia -- soldiers who insisted they were locals. The dezinformatsiya was when Moscow television stations aired a phony report that a 3-year-old boy in eastern Ukraine had been crucified in a town square for speaking Russian in public. This alleged atrocity was fictitious. No name was provided and the town square in the village of Sloviansk, where it supposedly happened, doesn’t exist.
Such crude Russian propaganda is hardly new, and in the 20th century there were always two ways to look at it. The first is that Russian disinformation campaigns are a joke: heavy-handed, transparent, and ultimately ineffective.
In the run-up to the Helsinki Olympics in 1952, for example, the first Games in which Soviet athletes competed, a Moscow newspaper offered its readers a breathless scoop. U.S. armed forces, the paper said, had taken command of the U.S. Olympic team, revealing “the intensified militarization of the country including American sports which has now reached an unheard-of scope.”
This was a typical Soviet two-fer. Although it was untrue, it was exactly what the Soviets were doing themselves. In the 1960s, the KGB helped spread the line that Martin Luther King Jr. was a traitor to his people. After King was killed, the KGB switched narratives: The CIA, its operatives now insisted, was behind the assassination. The Soviets’ goal, by the way, was nothing less than fomenting a race war in the United States.
In 1984, the Kremlin sent vile letters bearing U.S. postmarks to the Olympic committees in several African and Asian nations, alleging they were from the Ku Klux Klan.
The KGB was at it again in 1984. Incensed by the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Russia-hosted Olympics, the Soviets ordered other Iron Curtain nations to shun the ’84 Games in Los Angeles. So instead of sending its athletes, the Kremlin sent vile letters bearing U.S. postmarks to the Olympic committees in several African and Asian nations, alleging they were from the Ku Klux Klan. The letters contained racial slurs and various threats against athletes of color who attended the Games.
Two years earlier, KGB chief Yuri Andropov -- like Putin, a future leader of his country -- authorized Soviet spies to engage in “active measures” designed to prevent President Reagan from being re-elected. What that entailed has never been revealed, although KGB documents unearthed after the fall of the Soviet Union described such steps as “exerting useful influence on aspects of interest in the political life of a target country, including its foreign policy; misleading the adversary; undermining and weakening the adversary’s positions.”
Guess what? Race war did not engulf these shores; Martin Luther King is a national hero celebrated by Americans of all races and whose birthday is a U.S. holiday; the 1984 Olympic Games were a crowning success for the host country; and Ronald Reagan carried 49 states that year, winning in a landslide.
That’s one way of looking at it. Here’s another: Lies have consequences, and disinformation emanating from the Kremlin, much of it decades old, still poisons international discourse. The defamation of Pius XII as “Hitler’s pope” was a KGB concoction as part of its wider effort to discredit Catholicism. The slogan that “Zionism is racism,” a common formulation among campus leftists in the 21st century, was also a Kremlin concoction. So was the claim that AIDS is U.S.-generated germ warfare, a bit of nuttery that found its way into the mainstream media in some 50 nations – and has helped fuel resistance to vaccinations in some Third World countries.
The most direct example of Russian disinformation impacting world affairs came half a century ago in the Middle East. The result was a cataclysmic event, the Six Day War, that warped the politics of that volatile region for half a century.
The Kremlin’s “active measure,” on May 13, was to summon Anwar Sadat, then deputy president of Egypt, to Moscow where he was fed “top secret” information. Israel was amassing its army on its northern border, he was told, and it intended to invade Syria. Returning to Cairo, Sadat learned that the local KGB chief had told his Egyptian counterparts the same thing. Here was the problem: The story was a fabrication.
Why the Soviets did this is anybody’s guess. Some speculate that they were motivated by a parochial concern: They hoped to spook Egyptian President Abdel Nasser into pulling his troops out of Yemen, a Russian ally. Others say the gambit was aimed at Israel’s ally, the United States, which couldn’t help because it was tied down in Vietnam, or to distract Israel from completing its nuclear installation, or even because the KGB leadership was virulently anti-Semitic and just reflexively opposed to Israel’s existence. In any event, Israel’s neighbors massed their huge armies at her borders. Nasser went further, moving his troops into the Sinai and demanding that the U.N. peacekeepers get out. To even Nasser’s surprise, feckless U.N. Secretary General U Thant complied with this ultimatum. Meanwhile, Nasser and other Arab leaders issued increasingly bellicose statements vowing to wipe out Israel.
Convinced that its very existence depended on the element of surprise, Israel launched a brazen surprise attack. While it seems clear that the Soviet Union didn’t intend to start the 1967 Six Day War, that’s the problem with disinformation: It’s not easy to control.
Horse of a Different Color
Fast-forward four decades to the small Baltic nation of Estonia. Once part of the Soviet Union and now a member state of NATO, it was hit in April 27 by a series of sophisticated and major cyberattacks that essentially shut down banking, media outlets, and government offices for days -- in some cases, weeks. The perpetrators didn’t do much to hide themselves: They had Russian IP addresses.
In the 21st century, there is no longer much debate over whether Russian “active measures” are effective. That’s been proven. So how did they get so much better at the dark arts? The short answer is that their technology is more advanced. But here’s a more lyrical historic parallel:
North America in the late 1600s was rife with rival bands of Native American tribes, including a group of marginal and pedestrian mountain Shoshones of little standing among other Indians or the occasional Spaniard. They called themselves “Nermernuh,” which in their language means “the People.”
In the mid-18th century, they encountered a new technology, imported to this continent from Spain, that changed everything. It was the horse. Other tribes acquired horses, too, but no North American people adapted to it quite like the Nermernuh. They migrated out of the mountain country to the fertile plains of present-day Kansas and eastern Colorado. They kept migrating south, not all at once and not all in one band, probably in search of warmer climates and more mustangs.
“The People” enter history as though they had no past – here they differ from Russians – but by the time they force their way into the consciousness of their neighbors they are a feared and mounted martial people known by a Ute word, Komántcia, which is the counter-linguistic formulation to “the People.” It means “enemy” or, literally, “those who always want to fight.” We know them as Comanches.
As warriors, they were so impressive that after the Civil War, one Southern cavalryman said that if he’d had 500 mounted Comanches, he could have taken Washington, D.C. That would never have happened – Comanches didn’t ride for strategic purposes or to occupy territory. But they rode wherever they wanted for the better part of a century over a vast area encompassing 240,000 square miles simply called Comancheria.
In this analogy, Russians – both before and during the Soviet era – are the Nermernuh. The Russians of Putin’s era are Comanches, and digital technology is their horse. As it turns out, cyberwarriors are more mobile than the best horsemen. And as the 2016 U.S. presidential elections reveal, Ukraine isn’t the battlefield of the future; that domain is everywhere. It’s cyberspace.
Scott Shane, who reports these days for the New York Times, was back to writing about Russia last year. His co-authored Sept. 17 piece involved the online persona of one “Melvin Redick” of Harrisburg, Pa., whose Internet profile pictured “a friendly-looking American with a backward baseball cap and a young daughter, [and who] posted on Facebook a link to a brand-new website.”
The site was called “Visit #DCLeaks,” and Redick promoted it as a place to learn “hidden truths about Hillary Clinton, George Soros and other leaders of the US.” But like Melvin Redick himself, it was fake, an early example of a Russian troll farm playing with Americans’ minds and pitting them against one another. The idea of technology being used to liberalize Russia that Shane had written about two decades earlier had turned into a dystopian future.
Can Russia’s warlike impulses be contained or conquered? One has to think so. The technology it’s employing wasn’t developed by Russians any more than horsemanship was the invention of the Comanches. Or to put it another way: The U.S. agency DARPA was pioneering digital technology when Vladimir Putin was pushing paper in East Germany. The more pertinent questions are these: Is there a national will in America to meet the cybersecurity attacks emanating against the U.S. from Russia and other state actors?
Also, with a Congress that has only four (out of 535) members with a computer science degree -- and a White House that no longer has a cybersecurity coordinator -- do we really have the political leaders in office with the skill and resolve to mount the fight?
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.