Why Russia has a leg up in geopolitical hacking (Q&A)
3 min read

Why Russia has a leg up in geopolitical hacking (Q&A)

Why Russia has a leg up in geopolitical hacking (Q&A)

The Kremlin and its geopolitical hacking skills are at the center of a political storm, after Wikileaks published thousands of files belonging to the Democratic National Committee, and Donald Trump, the Republican candidate for U.S. president, on Wednesday called for Russian hackers to surface the purportedly missing emails of his Democrat rival, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Intruders reportedly hacked into DNC servers and spent a year collecting electronic documents, making off with a trove of about 20,000 private emails, opposition research, and other campaign correspondence. Although the attackers’ identities are still unknown, U.S. intelligence officials say they have “high confidence” that the Russian government was behind the hack.

There is little doubt, regardless of its involvement in the intrusion and subsequent leak, that Russia has amassed formidable capabilities in integrating hacking and information manipulation into its broader geopolitical strategy.

To get more perspective, we sought out James J. Wirtz, a recognized expert in Cold War history and geopolitical conflict who serves as dean of international graduate studies at the Naval Postgraduate School.

Wirtz’s personal views do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Navy or other U.S. agencies. Here is an edited transcript of our conversation.

James J. Wirtz

James J. Wirtz

Q: How do the suspected government hacking initiatives of Russia reflect its military objectives?

Russians are good Clauswitizians. They believe that war is a continuation of politics by other means. They want to alter the hearts and minds of opponents. To preserve their own political support, they want to change the political landscape in a way that favors their preferences. So to Russia, warfare is about controlling information.

How has Russia demonstrated prowess in controlling information?

During the invasion of Crimea and the ongoing pressure against the Ukraine, Russian officials were interested in injecting their own political narrative into the situation in a way that delayed NATO decision making and obfuscated actual events on the ground. Reducing the ability of the West to obtain good situational awareness bought them time to alter events on the ground.

To U.S. officials, warfare is about battlefield operations: shooting, killing, the violent aspects of it. The violence, ultimately, is an instrument to alter political perceptions, and make other people do what we want them to do, and make them think that it’s their idea.

The Russians see the Internet as a tool to do that without physical warfare; if they can alter your political perspective in a way that suits their interests, then they win the battle without actually fighting.

How does Russia’s technological expertise compare with its understanding of technology’s potential impact on political warfare?

The minds of many people in Russia leap immediately to the grand strategic and political implications of a technology. The country’s best engineers don’t necessarily invent the technology, nor are they necessarily the best at using it. But they have a real talent for understanding the long-term political and strategic impact. They understand how a technology could affect world politics, from political competition to warfare. They are really good seeing at the big picture.

Americans are more technically focused. The best U.S. engineers are better at inventing stuff, and they can operate it better and understand it better. It’s a relative comparison, but while Americans are more technologically focused, Russians are more politically and strategically focused.

Did these findings come as a surprise to our political and military leadership?

This comparison actually derives from a Military Affairs debate during the very end of the Cold War, during which the United States had developed a series of technologies to carry out long-range precision strikes against Soviet forces.

NATO and the United States, at the time, faced a mobilization race: How fast could we get forces to Europe to defend the German border? We did pretty well against the front-line Warsaw Pact and pretty well against their second-echelon troops. Our problem was the third echelon. We could not get reinforcements fast enough to Europe to beat it.

A technology made to stop that arsenal, and to attack specific targets behind enemy lines, emerged in the 1980s. We were focused on the technology, but the Russians saw the bigger picture: The precision missiles could take out key operational nodes and paralyze their forces.

What were the insights?

From their perspective, huge tank armies the Russians built during the Cold War would no longer function because the West could take out its command-and-control and logistics. They started talking about a technical and military revolution that would transform the way wars get fought. So where the Americans saw a technical application of it, the Russians saw the strategic grand political application.

You could probably do the same sort of comparison in attitudes toward business or medicine or agriculture. A national culture is based on history, technology, and a host of factors that shapes people’s attitudes and perspectives towards these things.

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