Putin isn’t playing.
If we were to use a sports metaphor, progressives concerned about Russian interference in the 2016 election are complaining that the referees aren’t using the whole rule book, and not reviewing the replay tapes; meanwhile, Putin is setting about to demolish the stadium with the teams and the spectators still inside.
Wired online has a long, detailed, and frightening expose’ by Andy Greenberg about Russia’s efforts to destabilize Ukraine through cyber-espionage and cyber-warfare, and it should be required reading for every progressive, and every elected US official not already beholden to Putin:
The Cyber-Cassandras said this would happen. For decades they warned that hackers would soon make the leap beyond purely digital mayhem and start to cause real, physical damage to the world. In 2009, when the NSA’s Stuxnet malware silently accelerated a few hundred Iranian nuclear centrifuges until they destroyed themselves, it seemed to offer a preview of this new era. “This has a whiff of August 1945,” Michael Hayden, former director of the NSA and the CIA, said in a speech. “Somebody just used a new weapon, and this weapon will not be put back in the box.”
Now, in Ukraine, the quintessential cyberwar scenario has come to life. Twice. On separate occasions, invisible saboteurs have turned off the electricity to hundreds of thousands of people. Each blackout lasted a matter of hours, only as long as it took for scrambling engineers to manually switch the power on again. But as proofs of concept, the attacks set a new precedent: In Russia’s shadow, the decades-old nightmare of hackers stopping the gears of modern society has become a reality.
One of the most important, and concerning, conclusions of the article is that Putin isn’t interested in limiting himself to the Ukraine; while he sees Ukraine as rightfully Russia’s, it is merely a convenient staging ground for developing the methods to project power globally, without needing to send a single Russian in uniform across the border:
… many global cybersecurity analysts have a much larger theory about the endgame of Ukraine’s hacking epidemic: They believe Russia is using the country as a cyberwar testing ground—a laboratory for perfecting new forms of global online combat. And the digital explosives that Russia has repeatedly set off in Ukraine are ones it has planted at least once before in the civil infrastructure of the United States.
Read that last line again. This is not some hypothetical scenario tossed around in graduate cybersecurity classes:
In 2014 the security firm FireEye had issued warnings about a team of hackers that was planting BlackEnergy malware on targets that included Polish energy firms and Ukrainian government agencies; the group seemed to be developing methods to target the specialized computer architectures that are used for remotely managing physical industrial equipment. The group’s name came from references to Dune found buried in its code, terms like Harkonnen and Arrakis, an arid planet in the novel where massive sandworms roam the deserts.
No one knew much about the group’s intentions. But all signs indicated that the hackers were Russian: FireEye had traced one of Sandworm’s distinctive intrusion techniques to a presentation at a Russian hacker conference. And when FireEye’s engineers managed to access one of Sandworm’s unsecured command-and-control servers, they found instructions for how to use BlackEnergy written in Russian, along with other Russian-language files.
Most disturbing of all for American analysts, Sandworm’s targets extended across the Atlantic. Earlier in 2014, the US government reported that hackers had planted BlackEnergy on the networks of American power and water utilities. Working from the government’s findings, FireEye had been able to pin those intrusions, too, on Sandworm.
For Lee, the pieces came together: It looked like the same group that had just snuffed out the lights for nearly a quarter-million Ukrainians had not long ago infected the computers of American electric utilities with the very same malware.
Of course, once Putin has shown that he can do this, with near impunity, anywhere (including the US), the value of this capability is as much in its usefulness as a threat, a tool of extortion (something any experienced Russian or US mobster knows all too well how to do)— ‘Give me what I want or I wreak havok on your essential utilities, your airports, your financial system.’
Max Boot at Foreign Policy explicates how our current national government is especially vulnerable to Putin’s extortion:
Manafort is hardly the only current or former Trump associate with suspiciously close ties to Moscow. We have only recently learned that Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security advisor, made $68,000 while serving as a consultant to Russian firms in 2015. Campaign foreign-policy advisor Carter Page maintained close ties with the Kremlin and its state-owned oil companies. Longtime Trump advisor Roger Stone has admitted to communicating with “Guccifer 2.0,” the moniker used by Russian intelligence to leak damaging information about Hillary Clinton, and with Julian Assange, the head of WikiLeaks, another Russian front organization. “Trust me, it will soon [be] the Podesta’s time in the barrel,” Stone tweeted on Aug. 21, 2016, weeks before WikiLeaks began leaking emails stolen from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta.
Even Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, it now emerges, met before the inauguration not just with Russia’s ambassador to Washington but also with Sergey Gorkov, who is close to Putin, was trained by Russian intelligence, and runs a state-owned bank that has been placed on a U.S. sanctions list. No one knows what they discussed, but it’s possible that Kushner, whose family real estate firm is desperate for foreign financing, was hoping to get an investment from this Russian bank to supplement the hundreds of millions of dollars it has sought from Chinese companies closely connected to the leadership in Beijing.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reportedly has a three-point plan to both improve relations and work with Russia, one of which includes facing global threats posed by the Syrian civil war, the proliferation of North Korea’s missile and defense program and a third that could seem strange to some: Cybersecurity and cyber-espionage. (emphasis added)
Putin isn’t playing.
He has willing (if not always fully comprehending) accomplices in the White House and Congress who are dismantling the US national security apparatus from the inside. Putin’s endgame isn’t to influence elections, it’s to be able to act without fear of reprisal. Like killing opponents or no longer useful associates on American soil:
The Washington DC medical examiner’s office has just confirmed that former Russian press minister Mikhail Lesin died of “blunt force trauma to the head.”
Lesin, who founded the English-language television network Russia Today (RT) was found dead in a Washington, DC, hotel room in November 2015.
The Daily Beast reports that before his death, Lesin was considering making a deal with the FBI to protect himself from corruption charges.
Putin isn’t playing.
This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.