Talk about the Russian bear in the room

Riley Walters

It’s time to talk about the Kremlin’s cyber operations.

“The Russian cyber threat is more severe than we had previously assessed,” says James Clapper, the U.S. Director of National Intelligence. Clapper’s comment came not in response to the recently revealed computer and phone breach at the Democratic National Committee (DNC), but during Congressional testimony last year.

Moscow tends to be focused on aiding the proliferation of national interests, such as intelligence gathering (or manipulation) or launching cyber-physical attacks.

The recent breach of DNC’s network systems has been attributed to two separate cyber groups—each are supposedly affiliated to Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) and Federal Security Service (FSB).

The FSB, in charge of Russian political security and counter-intelligence, leads Russia’s launching of cyber operations. But not all of its cyberattacks come from government computers. The FSB also coordinates hackers-for-hire activities.

Using contract hackers gives Russian government officials an extra degree of separation from the dirty work, even as they equip the hackers with the hardware and money to conduct their assigned missions. Similarly, Russia uses “patriotic hackers”—those who might not be getting paid but hack on in favor of the Russian government — and grants them sanctuary from government authorities.

On Tuesday, the White House released a new President Policy Directive, PPD 41, regarding how the U.S. will coordinate its response to cyber incidents. It provides a road map for coordinating a federal response in at least mitigating cyber incidents. That’s a good thing.

But the directive says little about how our government will actually respond to the nation states behind these cyber threats. We are still waiting to see action following an Executive Order issued last year which called for sanctioning those engaged in significant malicious cyber activity.

Russia continues to operate and expand its cyber operations outside the U.S. general population’s knowledge and with little public backlash.

Cyber threats will likely continue to grow in severity. It’s important to highlight how Russia continues to assist in coordinating and funding hacks on the U.S. and our allies.

Riley Walters is a research associate in The Heritage Foundation’s Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy.