How to Counter Putin's Subversive War on the West


Aug 1, 2016

Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives for a personal send-off for members of the Russian Olympic team at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, July 27, 2016

Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives for a personal send-off for members of the Russian Olympic team at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, July 27, 2016

Photo by Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

This commentary originally appeared on Newsweek on August 1, 2016.

Russia's apparent cyberespionage against the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton's campaign organizations and its state-sponsored doping of Olympic athletes show an obsession with disruptive behavior as a tool of statecraft. Such actions put Russia at risk of being known as a rogue elephant rather than a respected global power.

Cyberwar and sports doping are among the arrows in Moscow's quiver of “active measures,” a triple threat of propaganda, deception and subversion that dates to the Soviet era.

Recent active measures include Moscow's aid to right-wing political parties in Europe, such as the National Front in France, and a ploy to embarrass German Chancellor Angela Merkel by falsely claiming that Arab migrants in Berlin had raped a Russian-German girl. In the 1980s, the USSR spread a lie that America had created the AIDS virus in a laboratory and purposely spread it.

The release of stolen Democratic National Committee (DNC) documents on the eve of the Democratic Party's national convention may mean that the Kremlin has it in for Clinton. In 2011–12, tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets to protest the rule of Vladimir Putin. He blamed Clinton, then secretary of state, for “signaling” the demonstrators.

The Kremlin might have surmised that even if its email theft was at some point exposed, Washington would shy away from slapping on even more sanctions.

It's not yet clear which candidate will be hurt more, if at all, by the hack and disclosures.

Russian security services are sophisticated in cyberspace. In 2008, they apparently penetrated a secret U.S. Department of Defense network, SIPRNet. Also that year, they launched cyberattacks on Georgia just ahead of a ground force invasion, impeding Tbilisi's efforts to tell its story of the conflict to the rest of the world. Georgia restored its voice by re-hosting websites in America.

In 2010, Russian cyberactors penetrated Nasdaq's computer systems. In 2014, a U.S. cybersecurity company accused a Russian group of carrying out espionage against hundreds of U.S. industrial companies.

Russia resists prosecuting or extraditing cybercriminals, even though they rob its banks and sap its economy. In 2013, after U.S. agents lured a Russian cybercriminal to the Maldives and arrested him, the Kremlin warned against travel to countries with U.S. extradition treaties.

Internationally agreed norms and laws for cyberspace do not exist. Prospects for effective limits are poor. Compliance could not be reliably verified, and states would not accept limits that they viewed as putting at risk their security.

The World Anti-Doping Agency's probe of the use of performance-enhancing drugs by Russian athletes may cost Moscow the prestige that comes with Olympic medals, as 100 athletes, more than a quarter of Russia's national team, are banned from the Rio games.

The agency's investigation uncovered widespread, state-sponsored doping that included a cover-up of failed drug tests. The agency reported that for years doping was common among Russia's athletes, calling into question the legitimacy of their performances at past Olympic games.

Russian cybercrime, Olympics doping and other active measures have one thing in common: Moscow admits no wrongdoing.

The Kremlin has sought to lay blame for the doping scandal on an international political conspiracy to discredit Russia. It has likewise denied involvement in the hacking. These scandals exacerbate the frigid relations between Moscow and the West, making efforts to prod Russia toward better behavior all the more challenging.

Diplomacy sometimes works slowly, but it helps. The West should turn up the heat on Russia to join and implement the 2004 Budapest Convention on Cybercrime. Adhered to by 49 states, it commits them to harmonize criminal laws, bolster investigative powers and deepen international cooperation. Russia claims that the convention would violate its sovereignty, even though Russian cybercrime infringes that of many other states.

It is critical to deny the use of cyberspace to militant organizations that abuse it to recruit personnel and coordinate operations. In this area, Russia and the West have some parallel interests, and the capacity to act.

In the 1980s, the Reagan administration mounted a campaign of public disclosure to counter Moscow's active measures. Sunlight may remain the best disinfectant. The Kremlin is sensitive to foreign perceptions, as shown by its substantial investment in the government-funded television network RT, Sputnik and other instruments of propaganda.

Moscow's provocative active measures cause foreign investors and international lenders to see higher risks in doing business with Russia. Iran is learning a similar, painful lesson as it persists with harsh anti-Western policies even as nuclear-related sanctions fade.

Russia will decide its own priorities. But it should not be surprised if disregard for others' interests diminishes the international regard it seeks as an influential great power.

William Courtney is an adjunct senior fellow at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and was U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan, Georgia and a U.S.-Soviet nuclear testing commission. Martin Libicki is a senior management scientist at RAND and author of the forthcoming book Cyberspace in Peace and War.

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