The Russia connectionKey takeaways from the Kremlin’s recent interference offensive

By David Salvo and Bradley Hanlon

Published 11 October 2018

Recent counterintelligence operations by U.K. and Dutch intelligence services, and similar operations by the U.S. and Swiss authorities, have exposed a broad, sustained, and determined Russian effort to undermine Western democracies. The main takeaways from the revelations about these Russian operations: First, the Kremlin uses cyber hacks and other asymmetric tools not only to interfere in elections, but also to execute a number of other objectives. Second, the Kremlin uses various asymmetric tools in conjunction with one another to achieve its objectives. Finally, the Kremlin has authorized its security services to pursue Moscow’s interests with brazen and aggressive vigor.

On 4 October, officials in the Netherlands and U.K. revealed a joint counterintelligence operation that led to the arrest and expulsion of four Russian military intelligence (GRU) officers in April for attempting to hack the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in retribution for the OPCW’s investigation of the Skripal poisoning. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) then issued an indictment of seven Russian intelligence officers, including the four GRU officers arrested in The Hague, for “conducting malicious cyber operations against the United States and its allies.” The DOJ indictment highlights a series of cyber-attacks attributed to the GRU officers, including hacking attempts targeting various athletes, anti-doping organizations, and sports associations, as well as attacks directed at a U.S. nuclear power company in Pennsylvania and a chemical laboratory in Switzerland. The joint announcements of 4 October highlight the importance of information sharing and coordination between democratic allies and partners to respond to and counter the Kremlin’s interference operations around the world. A united approach is the best way to ensure democracies raise the costs on authoritarian regimes that seek to undermine them.

The revelations about these operations also illuminate several key takeaways about the Kremlin’s ongoing interference in Europe and the United States. First, the Kremlin uses cyber hacks and other asymmetric tools not only to interfere in elections, but also to execute a number of other objectives, such as impugning the credibility of and exacting revenge on individuals, organizations, and states that expose the Russian government’s brazen operations — be they doping scandals at the Olympics or poisoning perceived turncoats on the streets of England. Much of the discussion and anxiety surrounding Russian interference has centered on elections. As the cornerstone of functioning democracies, elections will always present a tempting target for malign foreign actors. However, in pursuit of its goal to weaken and divide its adversaries, Moscow seizes on divisions and opportunities on an ongoing basis to stoke divisions, shape discourse, and influence policy in democratic countries.