Alleged Russian Cyber warfare: Diplomatic crisis in US-Russian relations ahead of Trump’s Presidency

Posted on Posted in Analyses, Intelligence and Security, International Developments

By Vasilis Papageorgiou, Analyst KEDISA

The announcements made on the evening of the 29th of December 2016 by the outgoing Obama’s administration, declaring a new wave of sanctions against Russia in response to the accusations of the latter for an alleged involvement in the US presidential elections, seem to be another attempt to escalate the tension between the two countries into a diplomatic crisis. This time Russia is accused of conducting cyber-attacks on the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in the election campaign of the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, in order to influence the election outcome in favor of the new-elected US President, Republican Donald J. Trump.

More specifically, the sanctions include the immediate expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats and the closure of two Russian compounds of GRU, Russian military intelligence agency. The US president cited an official report, written jointly by the US Department of Homeland Security and the FBI, which -according to the report- revealed a Russia’s involvement in the recent presidential elections in the US through “malicious activity in cyberspace.” It is worth noting that the “WikiLeaks” name is not mentioned at any point inside the report. WikiLeaks has published the leaked emails of the DNC party that put into question the impartiality of the DNC. In the abovementioned report, there is also an attached annex with hundreds of IP addresses (Internet Protocol address) from which it seems that the perpetrators launched cyber-attacks, but it must be pointed out that only two out of a total of 248 identified IP addresses were confirmed to be in Russia, with the vast majority of them being located in several other regions around the world. It should also be noted that the hybrid nature of cyber-attacks makes the tracking of any perpetrator extremely difficult in most cases. Often the perpetrators use other computers as hosts (zombie computers) while the real owner-user is unaware of this action. The attackers are “affecting” computers usually from different places around the world (in order to produce the “noise” needed to hide their tracks) and through those zombie PC’s they conduct their cyber-attacks. Consequently, in none of the above scenarios, sufficient evidence exists to directly accuse the Russian state, since the IP addresses cannot be a reliable indicator for conclusions. John D. McAfee, the developer of the homonymous antivirus software, which was the first product of its kind released in the market, holds also the same belief. According to him, the report is a “fallacy”, since hackers can use false information regarding their location, language and any other factor that could lead to them. He added that, claiming that any hackers had the expertise and capacity to penetrate the DNC, they should also be capable of covering their tracks.

The first official statement on the cyber-attacks issue took place during the presidential election period on the 7th of October 2016, when the Obama’s administration directly accused Russia of hacking the American elections. Since then, and especially by the time that Trump was declared the winner of the presidential election on the 8th of November, the Obama’s administration has adopted a more aggressive rhetoric against Russia, culminating in the most recent announcements of the US President. Outgoing President Obama made clear that a variety of measures are expected to be followed, some of which will not be made public. It should be pointed out regarding “cyber-war” as a security issue and according to the “International Strategy for Cyberspace” published in 2011 by the White House, the US “reserve the right to use all necessary means”, including military.

Apparently, it seems that the government of the Democratic party, shortly before handing over the power to President Trump, fearing a possible thaw in Russian-American relations under the new President, is trying to create an “unbridgeable gap” between the two states, which it won’t be able to bridge, even if that’s the orientation of the new President. In case Trump tries to settle things down, he will find a large portion of Democratic and Republican Senators and the public on the opposite side. The new presidency of the US has already faced criticism on the topic, as former advisers, and current candidates for important government positions (eg. the CEO of Exxon Mobil, Rex Tillerson, n.1 candidate for the post of Minister of Foreign Affairs), are rumored to maintain or maintained economic relations or ties in general, with Russian oligarchs in the recent past.  Trump himself had also praised Putin in the past, and so did now, arguing that he “is very smart” for withholding reciprocal sanctions on the US. When he was asked in the same night of the recent announcement of Obama’s administration, he tried not to pay so much attention on the issue, saying that “we have to move to bigger and better things,” but promised to “review the intelligence next week”. Finally, it should be noted that, on the other side, Russian President Putin, who has expressed some equally flattering comments about the new President, is likely also a winner of the election outcome, as he hopes to improve relations between the two countries during the forthcoming Trump’s presidency and to hopefully ease or even lift the sanctions imposed by the west in recent years at the expense of Russia.

On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, Germany seems concerned as well. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a few hours after the election on the 8th of November, expressed her fears about possible cyber-attacks from Russian actors in the upcoming German elections. Similarly, a few hours after Obama’s decision, an article was uploaded in Financial Times, regarding the German fears about the possibility of cyber-attacks by the Russian state. Russia has been targeted many times in the recent past for the use of its cyberattack capabilities that seem to currently possess and to develop. Countries that have received intense cyber-attacks in the past, like Georgia and Estonia, have directly accused Russia of such practices.

In response to the Obama moves, the Russian Foreign Ministry suggested in turn, expelling 35 US diplomats in retaliation (tit for tat), but the President of Russia has rejected this proposal. President Putin seems to wait for the “change in the office” before acting, arguing that these kinds of moves are “irresponsible kitchen diplomacy”. His relatively soft reaction points out that he addresses the Obama moves as a “diplomatic trap” which would bind a total rupture of relations with the US, just before the dawn of the Trump’s presidency.

In conclusion, it remains uncertain whether the attempt to create a gap between the two countries will have fruitful results, as Russia seems to react mildly to these sanctions and generally any recent likeminded action. On the other side, President Trump seems determined not to give special importance to the issue and to cultivate a different kind of relationship with Russian President Putin, based on a “mutual benefit” on business terms, with which President Trump seems to understand and approach internal and foreign policy issues. The question is, whether he can achieve this, given the pressure that he will face inside the US in order to continue the policy followed in recent years concerning Russia.



Primary Sources

Department of Homeland Security and FBI, (2016). GRIZZLY STEPPE – Russian Malicious Cyber Activity. Washington, DC: Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI).

Presidential Executive Office, (2016). Statement by the President of Russia. Moscow: President of Russia.

The White House, (2011). International Strategy for Cyberspace. Washington DC: The White House, p.14.

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