Russia’s Cyber Strategy

Cyber warfare is often described as an integral part of future wars. Some states have adapted to this reality already, while others struggle.

In particular, the use of cyber weapons has proven to have a profound impact on operational reality of the war in Ukraine. A good example is the hacktivist attacks that have occurred which have set a dangerous precedent for both cyber norms and infrastructure security. 

The Russian Federation’s willingness to engage in offensive cyber operations has caused enormous harm, including massive financial losses, interruptions to the operation of critical infrastructure, and disruptions of crucial software supply chains. 

The variety and frequency of these operations, as well as the resulting attribution efforts, have offered an unusually vivid picture of Russia’s cyber capabilities and tactics. While many other countries have relied heavily on vague strategies and threats to signal their emerging cyber powers, Russia has exercised its technical capabilities with relative impunity for more than a decade. 

Russia’s increasingly hostile activities in the cyber sphere have lent new urgency to the cyber security debate in the West and some cyber crime groups have pledged support for the Russian government.  However, what Russia really thinks about cyberspace and exactly what Russia gets up to in this realm is shrouded in mystery

Russian cyber crime groups have threatened to conduct cyber operations in retaliation for perceived cyber offensives against the Russian government or the Russian people. Some groups have also threatened to conduct cyber operations against countries and organizations providing materiel support to Ukraine. Other cyber crime groups have recently conducted disruptive attacks against Ukrainian websites, in support of the Russian military offensive. 

On April 20, 2022, the cyber security authorities of the United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom released a joint Cybersecurity Advisory to warn organisations that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could expose organisations both within and beyond the region to increased malicious cyber activity. This activity may occur as a response to the unprecedented economic costs imposed on Russia as well as materiel support provided by the United States and U.S. allies and partners. 

The Russian cyber challenge is not new. The first known cyber attacks initiated by Moscow against the US military date from 1986. 

At the time, the Soviet Union, working in collaboration with the East German secret services, acted through West German cyber proxies. Realising the value and the low cost of remotely-conducted cyber intrusions, Russia sought to overcome its ‘cyber-laggard’ status already in the 1990s, and despite the economic crisis afflicting the country at that time began to develop a sophisticated arsenal of cyber espionage tools.

The roots of Russia’s global cyber power lie in its expertise in intelligence gathering as well as in Russian domestic politics. 

From the early 2000s Russia invested in cyber capabilities to combat Chechen online information campaigns as well as to monitor, disrupt or crack down on the online activism of various Russian opposition groups and independent media. Cooperation began between the Russian state and proxy cyber-activists, or ‘patriotic hackers’, as Vladimir Putin once called them, started to develop. This modus operandi was created domestically during the Chechen war, when snooping and dis-information campaigns were coordinated in a systematic way for the first time; trolls and bots were deployed; but from the late 2000s and early 2010s started to be applied internationally 

Russia is certainly one of the world’s great cyber powers - it has extremely sophisticated capabilities, and has integrated cyber tools in its foreign and security policy much more extensively than other international players. 

The high-profile publicity that Russia has received in recent years because of its cyber operations has also spurred NATO and the EU to invest much more intensively in cyber security, which is likely to result in an escalation of defensive cyber activities vis-à-vis Russia. It has also led the US and many European states to adopt more assertive cyber strategies.

All of this means that Russia’s strategic ‘cyber holiday’ is now over and we have entered a new, much more contested phase of cyber geopolitics where the great cyber powers will henceforth adopt a more aggressive, ‘gloves-off’ approach.

Russia has found a place in its political-military chain of command for cyber warfare and in a domain of conflict characterised by shades of grey, their engagement  with  information warfare is unceasing.

CISA:    Stanislav Secrieru:    The Register:   Small Wars Journal:   FPRI:     Chatham House

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