Decoding the effects of Russia’s cyber attacks during the US election

Russia’s geopolitics offers evidence for that rationale behind the Kremlin’s cyber offensive

Dr. Theodore Karasik
Dr. Theodore Karasik
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Whatever the truth of the cyber-hacking and the resulting ongoing volatile debate in the United States regarding Russian President Vladimir Putin’s cyber campaign to influence the November election outcome in Donald Trump’s favor is part of a larger cyberwar Moscow has been nurturing for the past decade. Offensive cyberwarfare is now out in the open after a ten year build-up of minor but significant attacks. The implications of this new stage of cyberwarfare has implications for MENA.

Russia’s ability to pull off such a methodical information campaign is based on decades of research on influence and manipulation through disinformatzia (disinformation) and maskirovka (deception). Overtime, Russian military science saw network struggles, and in extreme forms, such as information-psychological warfare and netwars, as a means to an end.

There are some notable instances of Russian offensive cyber-attacks. In 2006, for example, Russian hackers, angered by the removal of a Soviet war memorial, launched a sustained denial of service attack (DDoS) on government and business websites in Estonia. In 2008, Georgia suffered massive Internet outages alongside its military battle with Russia. In 2009, Kyrgyzstan became a victim when hackers in Russia targeted the Central Asian country’s two largest Internet service providers with a DDoS. At the same time, the Kremlin was pressuring Bishkek to kick out US forces from the airbase at Manas. These efforts also were cost effective and influenced the outcome of politics and war and Moscow learned some lessons - especially when applied to Crimea and Ukraine.

Russia’s geopolitics offers evidence for that rationale behind the Kremlin’s cyber offensive. In opposition to the ideology of Western liberalism, Russia promotes a neo-conservative post-liberal power struggling for a just multi-polar world which defends tradition, conservative values and true liberty. To be sure, Russian civilization is set to continue its ancient and storied existence because of Moscow’s righteous path to Slavic enlightenment where spirit becomes paramount. This concept is the main reason why Russia is acting the way it does now towards the EU but also towards many countries in the MENA region. Moscow sees the West as lacking the willpower to be a positive influence as opposed to a power that fails to implement redlines.

The implications are significant for MENA. If Putin planned to put Trump in the White House, then the Kremlin calculated that a Trump presidency would help Moscow in the Middle East

Dr. Theodore Karasik

Then, in the early 2010s, Russian security elites formulated a new Russian security and foreign policy doctrine based on the need to identify and alert the world to America and Europe’s desire to upend the international order to their liking to capture key states for geopolitical expansionism. The Russians announced their intent to counter this activity by conducting additional research and analysis, ultimately devising an assertive form of information warfare.

In the past few years, Russian Defense Ministry conferences pointed out that Russia sees a bipolar world emerging where an alternative and antithesis to the West is necessary. The use of networks and information is paramount to create this antithesis up to and including arms sales, alliance building and the creation of an alternative economic system. To do this, the Russian security services devised a way to turn societies “inside-out” just as the Americans did with their version of “colored revolutions” in Kyrgyzstan, Georgia and Ukraine to name a few. Now Americans are turning on each other.

The Russian offensive cyber doctrine sees information as a strategic resource. As a tactical weapon, cyber intrusions capture information without the agency or individual knowing about the information capture until it is released on social media or in the press. As a militarized weapon, the Russian cyberattack means disrupting the information and communications systems of social and political culture, which an adversary relies on to “know” itself (who it is, where it is, what it can do when, why it is fighting, which threats to counter first etc.). It means trying to know all about an adversary while keeping it from knowing much about oneself and turning the “balance of information and knowledge” in one’s favor. America’s presidential election last month was another example.

The implications are significant for MENA. If Putin planned to put Trump in the White House, then the Kremlin calculated that a Trump presidency would help Moscow in the Middle East. Arab states are likely to be in for a bumpy ride as Americans debate the Russian intervention and Washington’s response before or after January 20 to major developments in the Syrian Civil War, particularly related to Damascus’ gains in Aleppo and losses in Palmyra. In addition, Arab interlocutors are indicating that for them the Trump triumph illustrates that the power of information and its control in the Arab hypermedia environment is subject to the same type of manipulation as Arab countries transform away from their oil-based economies. Information leaks regarding Middle East leaders and their businesses can be used as a strategic and tactical weapon by Moscow, or just about any forward-leaning cyber warrior. Moscow may also use cyber campaigns to undermine transformation programs if Russia doesn’t get its way in MENA

Understanding the cultural and social drivers behind Russia’s cyber offensive is paramount. Russia’s spiritual quest for greatness is being amplified by Putin’s foreign policy abroad, notably the intervention into Syria and the resulting Trump presidency in America. Russia’s offensive cyberattack serves as an example for other cyber-capable countries such as China, North Korea and Iran. This sad, ongoing episode is part of a further reset of the global world order where Russia just opened up another Pandora’s Box.


Dr. Theodore Karasik is a Gulf-based analyst of regional geo-political affairs. He received his Ph.D in History from UCLA in Los Angeles, California in four fields: Middle East, Russia, Caucasus, and a specialized sub-field in Cultural Anthropology focusing on tribes and clans. He tweets @tkarasik



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