International Security

Behind Russia’s cyberwarfare lies a serious case of cyber-phobia

Jan 17 '19
(Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg News)

After two U.S. election cycles dominated by talk of the cyberthreat from Russia, many Americans see their democracy as deeply vulnerable to influence operations on social networks, as well as penetration of election infrastructure. With no satisfactory safeguard against foreign interference in place and the 2020 presidential election cycle fast approaching, these concerns are likely to persist.

But Russia grapples with its own deep cyber insecurity. Notwithstanding their bold moves in cyberspace, Russia’s leaders have spent much of the last decade panicking about cyber tools and the prospect of falling victim to their use by foreign adversaries.

To be sure, the Kremlin isn’t worried that U.S. spies are hacking its voter systems. Rather, as my new study of government documents and statements by officials from 2011 to 2018 highlights, Russia perceives three major threats emanating from cyberspace:

1. Regime change has gone digital.

In the 2000s, pro-democracy movements ousted pro-Russian governments in Yugoslavia, Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, leaving Moscow terrified of regime change — and determined to prevent it at home. But it took the prominent use of social networks by protesters in Russia and the Middle East — the “Twitter revolutions” — to shift the Kremlin’s attention from regulating nongovernmental organizations and defanging political parties to censoring the Internet.

When demonstrators took to VKontakte, Russia’s equivalent of Facebook, to share footage of ballot-stuffing and to organize protests in late 2011, all that the FSB, Russia’s modern-day KGB, could do was plead with the social network’s chief executive — by fax, no less. Although the 2011-2012 protests ultimately failed to bring down Vladimir Putin, who returned to the presidency after a stint as prime minister, Putin and other Russian leaders realized that the Internet had become too dangerous to ignore.

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The Russian leadership saw the Arab Spring uprisings and the 2011-2012 protests in Russia, which the FSB blamed on the subversive use of “new technologies” by Western spies, as demonstrations of U.S. muscle in cyberspace. In fall 2014, Putin complained that certain countries use their “dominant position” in cyberspace to achieve their military, political and economic goals, while Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov openly called Washington “the global Internet’s main administrator.”

Putin has also told U.S. journalists “the Internet is yours” and called it a “special CIA project.” Other high-ranking officials saw the Edward Snowden revelations, which revealed cooperation between U.S. intelligence agencies and social networks, as vindication of Moscow’s concerns that Facebook and Twitter advanced “U.S. military objectives by nonmilitary means” such as the “manipulation of public opinion” in Russia.

Current and retired chiefs of the Russian General Staff see the critical role of social networks in the 2013-2014 Ukrainian protests as heralding a new way of war, one in which governments must achieve “information superiority” through mass media and social networks as early as possible.

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In fact, Russian officials don’t rule out that “tectonic shifts” in its relations with the West may leave Russia’s more than 100 million Internet users without Internet access. In December, Russian lawmakers submitted a bill preparing the country for the potential loss of access to the global Internet.

Events in the Middle East and Eastern Europe have taught Russia to fear the subversive and even overtly aggressive use of cyber tools by foreign adversaries. But Moscow rarely mentions the possibility that foreigners could penetrate its voter systems. Hacked or not, elections are not how Russia’s leaders expect to be forced out the door.

2. The Internet is the playground of criminals and terrorists.

Russia has other adversaries in cyberspace. Like many of their Western counterparts, Russian officials frequently charge that online anonymity and the encryption of communications make it harder for law enforcement and security agencies to fight crime and terrorism.

Putin has protested “the impunity of lawbreakers on the Internet,” drawing parallels between the anonymous handles of social media users and the code names of spies. In 2016, Aleksandr Bastrykin, a senior law enforcement official, said the Kremlin must “stop playing at fake democracy” and “observing pseudo-liberal values” if it intends to deny extremists freedom of action on the Internet, where younger users offer “a natural reserve” of recruits.

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Moscow finds encrypted messaging apps frustrating — including the Russian-made Telegram, which the Russian government controversially banned in April for refusing to assist the FSB’s terrorism investigations. In this respect, it is not alone. In 2017, British Home Secretary Amber Rudd remarked that “real people” do not need end-to-end encryption. In the United States, privacy advocates and technology companies continue to resist the federal government’s efforts to seek access to encrypted devices.

3. The Internet fosters moral decadence.

Russian political elites argue that beyond its use by spies, subversives, criminals and terrorists, the Internet poses a great threat to societal norms and cohesion. Putin — who has admitted that he uses neither the Internet nor a smartphone — once claimed that pornography accounts for half of the Internet’s content. Various official documents warn that the country’s “spiritual-moral values” are under attack, online as well as offline. In Moscow’s view, the wealth of graphically sexual and violent content available on the Internet threatens to corrupt Russians.

Russian officials have other concerns about the ways in which online anonymity encourages anti-social behavior, and erodes trust within society. In 2016, Putin complained that the Internet makes it “easy to hide, be rude, insult others, [and] take extreme positions” in online interactions. The following year, he told media figures that the anarchy of the Internet echoes the post-Soviet chaos of the 1990s, when “democracy was understood to mean permissiveness.”

To be sure, some Russian officials are keen to seize any and all opportunities to expand Russia’s domestic Internet control regime and limit potential channels of dissent. But years of talk of bringing cyberspace under state control — and various attempts to do so — point to a deep and long-standing anxiety in Moscow over the power of the Internet to change regimes — even in Russia. As the United States confronts its own cyber insecurity, it’s not alone; Moscow is just as cyber-phobic.

Lincoln Pigman (@lincolnpigman) is a master’s student in Oxford University’s Oxford School of Global and Area Studies and a graduate of King’s College London’s Department of War Studies.