On October 4, officials in the Netherlands and U.K. revealed a joint counterintelligence operation that led to the arrest and expulsion of four Russian military intelligence (GRU) officers in April for attempting to hack the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in retribution for the OPCW’s investigation of the Skripal poisoning. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) then issued an indictment of seven Russian intelligence officers, including the four GRU officers arrested in The Hague, for “conducting malicious cyber operations against the United States and its allies.” The DOJ indictment highlights a series of cyber-attacks attributed to the GRU officers, including hacking attempts targeting various athletes, anti-doping organizations, and sports associations, as well as attacks directed at a U.S. nuclear power company in Pennsylvania and a chemical laboratory in Switzerland. The joint announcements of October 4 highlight the importance of information sharing and coordination between democratic allies and partners to respond to and counter the Kremlin’s interference operations around the world. A united approach is the best way to ensure democracies raise the costs on authoritarian regimes that seek to undermine them.
The revelations about these operations also illuminate several key takeaways about the Kremlin’s ongoing interference in Europe and the United States. First, the Kremlin uses cyber hacks and other asymmetric tools not only to interfere in elections, but also to execute a number of other objectives, such as impugning the credibility of and exacting revenge on individuals, organizations, and states that expose the Russian government’s brazen operations — be they doping scandals at the Olympics or poisoning perceived turncoats on the streets of England. Much of the discussion and anxiety surrounding Russian interference has centered on elections. As the cornerstone of functioning democracies, elections will always present a tempting target for malign foreign actors. However, in pursuit of its goal to weaken and divide its adversaries, Moscow seizes on opportunities on an ongoing basis to stoke divisions, shape discourse, and influence policy in democratic countries.
Second, the Kremlin uses various asymmetric tools in conjunction with one another to achieve its objectives. The DOJ indictment reveals that the GRU officers stole personal email communications and health information from famous athletes as part of a disinformation campaign to “further a narrative favorable to the Russian government.” The officers then released that information — sometimes after modifying it — through inauthentic social media accounts and websites. The officers even worked to solicit and promote media coverage to amplify their narrative. This is a similar strategy to the hack-and-leak tactics employed by the GRU during the 2016 election campaign, and was part of the impetus behind the hack of the OPCW as well.
Another goal of the GRU hacks was to exact revenge on those who embarrassed the Kremlin by investigating the Skripal poisoning or exposing Russia’s doping operations during the 2014 Sochi Olympics. The Russian government’s related disinformation campaigns were designed to obfuscate the truth and prevent a consensus within Western societies about what actually happened in Salisbury and Sochi and call into question the credibility of the various individuals and organizations exposing the truth. Tools as disparate as cyber-attacks and information operations are mutually reinforcing in pursuit of the Kremlin’s strategic objectives. Countering Moscow’s interference efforts will require policymakers to respond in as interconnected a manner as the operations themselves. As outlined in ASD’s Policy Blueprint to Countering Authoritarian Interference in Democracies, governments need to take a holistic approach to defending against multifaceted interference operations by appointing a senior policymaker to coordinate across government agencies and establishing an intelligence center that combines various agencies’ expertise under one roof. Outside of government, journalists especially should take note of the GRU’s attempts to manipulate media outlets, and should act with extreme caution when reporting on hacked information to avoid becoming “pawns in a bigger chess game.”
Finally, the Kremlin has authorized its security services to pursue Moscow’s interests with brazen and aggressive vigor. As described by Russia expert Mark Galeotti, the GRU “has been let off the leash, engaging in the kind of missions that once might have been passed over as too potentially risky.” Last week’s revelations show that the GRU is engaged in everything from assassinations and election interference to cyber espionage and disinformation, and is carrying out operations against the West at a high tempo. Moscow may have bungled its attempts to cover up the Skripal assassination, but that does not change that it green-lighted an assassination attempt on foreign soil that killed a British citizen. Western policymakers should be wary of the Kremlin’s increasingly brazen interference efforts, and should act soon to deter future aggression, improve defenses, and build resilience.
As indicated by the GRU’s targeting of international organizations and transatlantic governments and institutions, as well as its capability to operate at high pace across Europe and the United States, Western allies need to work together to share information and counter threats. The coordinated and collective unveiling of Russian operations by transatlantic allies was a crucial display of unity. It represents a step in the right direction toward more institutionalized information sharing on these types of threats, and also indicates an important willingness of allied governments to collectively attribute these asymmetric operations to the Russian government. The more that transatlantic allies are willing to shine a light on the tools and tactics used by the Kremlin to interfere in democracies, the greater the deterrent it serves against future interference operations. Increased exposure and attribution also pressures allies to come together to impose costs on nation-states that wage these destabilizing campaigns against the democratic world.