October 11, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: Moscow’s Meddling in U.S. Elections

• The U.S. has officially accused the Russian government of carrying out a campaign of cyberattacks against groups and individuals affiliated with U.S. political parties.

• U.S. intelligence agencies believe the cyberattacks may be a Russian attempt to interfere in the upcoming presidential elections.

• Russia has used covert disinformation campaigns to discredit rival political institutions for decades; the recent cyberattacks may serve its strategic purposes in that regard.

• It is highly unlikely that Russia would be able to rig U.S. elections outright, but even the appearance of irregularities stemming from cyberattacks could cast doubt on the results.


On October 7, the U.S. officially blamed Russia for a campaign of cyberattacks—dating back at least a year—that officials believe may be an attempt to interfere in the upcoming U.S. presidential election. The cyberattacks include the theft and public disclosure of a plethora of financial, political, and personal data from both the Democratic and Republican parties, as well as key institutions and individuals associated with them. While both parties have been targeted, the bulk of intrusions have been directed at the Democratic party. While U.S. intelligence agencies had suspected Russia was behind the cyberattacks for the last several months, Friday’s accusation is the first time the U.S. has officially attributed culpability to the Russian government.

U.S. intelligence agencies also said that the Kremlin may have probed state election systems, raising the possibility that Russian hackers could cast doubt over the result of the election itself. While intelligence agencies believe it is unlikely that Russia could use cyberattacks to rig the election outright, the Kremlin may be able to manipulate voter registration systems or shut down polling stations, impeding the voting process in an effort to undermine the credibility of the election result. 

Should Moscow attempt to hack the election in one form or another, the diffusion of U.S. election systems—which are run by individual states—would be both a liability and an asset in terms of security. To significantly manipulate the election, hackers would have to penetrate a myriad of different computer election systems, each with individual barriers to entry. However, the ability of the U.S. to defend those systems could be frustrated by varying degrees of protection and compatibility. The threat of Russian cyber-meddling is being taken seriously enough that Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson has proposed designating America’s election process as critical infrastructure, which would grant state election systems extra protection by the federal government.

For decades the Kremlin has used covert misinformation campaigns to undermine the credibility of rival political institutions. In that sense, the recent hacks may already serve Russia’s strategic purposes. The well-timed leak of information obtained through the hacks—some of which appears to be fabricated—has already caused embarrassment and upheaval within the Democratic party. The hackers have promised to release thousands more documents pertaining to the elections, introducing another element of uncertainty in this year’s already tumultuous presidential race. 

In the hyper-politicized atmosphere of this election season, Russia likely would not need to actually sway the outcome of the election to cast doubt on its legitimacy. The mere allegation of irregularities in only a few swing states—or states that are too close to call—may be enough to discredit the results and throw the political process into disarray. 

Such a scenario would be a twofold propaganda coup for the Kremlin. While Russia would undoubtedly deny any involvement, the mere suggestion that it has the power to influence the elections of the world’s most powerful democracy casts the Kremlin in a powerful light, reinforcing Putin’s narrative that Russia is a rebounding world power that should be feared and respected. Furthermore, a flawed American presidential election and the political turmoil that would likely follow could serve to undermine the merits of American-style democracy, which Putin views as an ideological nuisance.

Despite taking the significant step of officially blaming Russia for the hacks, the U.S. does not have many options to retaliate. When it comes to cyberattacks, historical methods of deterring and punishing espionage are obsolete or ineffective. While the U.S. may conduct cyberattacks of its own against Russia, the unknown risks of an escalating cyberwar suggest economic and political measures may be preferred. As it can take months to uncover malicious cyber activity, attributing responsibility for any disruptions on election day would be difficult. Nonetheless, the specter of interference in a U.S. presidential election—real or perceived—could have serious long-term consequences well beyond the borders of the United States.


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