The West is in Cyber War with Russia, But We Haven't Admitted As Much

Stephen Rockwell • 18 September 2017
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I imagine most progressives aren't going to like what I'm about to say.  The United States and the West are in a Cyber War with Russia and we have not admitted as much to ourselves.  

I say so with some caveats about what may be the nature of war in the 21st century between nuclear armed powers. Indeed, I'm hopeful that wars are limited to cyber meddling and do not wrought the mass violence that we saw in the 20th century.  The Russians have taken a number of steps in flexing their muscles far short of any direct conflict with the United States and the West.  That being said, directly attacking the core of our democracy, our elections, may end up being far more corrosive to the continued functioning of the Republic.  

I say so with an understanding that we Americans are way too willing to go to war and use or military to achieve ends which could be achieved through diplomacy.  Our misguided and morally bankrupt war of choice in Iraq stands out as perhaps the biggest of these mistakes.  Most of the military conflicts since Korea have been conflicts of choice, often without a clear victory for the nation and tremendous loss of life on both sides in places like Vietnam and Iraq.    

I say so knowing that we Americans use "war" as analogy for addressing any problem we might face when there are so much better alternatives.  The War on Poverty or the War on Drugs are really terrible frames for solving those types of issues.  However, in this instance, I do believe cyber-war is the correct language to use.

I say so even before we have full information about the nature of Russian intervention in the 2016 election.  All of our intelligence services came to the conclusion that Russia intervened on behalf of the Trump campaign.  Three Congressional investigations and Robert Mueller are determining whether and to what degree there was collusion with the Trump campaign and what financial entanglements might have made such collusion enticing for US actors. Regardless of those investigations, we must take the Russian involvement as a serious threat that can (and perhaps did) undermine our democracy.  

I say so that admitting to ourselves that we are in fact in a cyber war with Russia, would likely mean much stiffer responses to Putin and his country.  Such responses could escalate into a much broader military conflict.  However, respond we must.  The following steps should be taken:

  • Develop a cyber border wall with Russia.  Forget the physical wall with Mexico.  We have to be able to stop so much Russia based traffic from getting through.  We must secure critical infrastructure against attack.  Forger physical proximity to a nuclear power plant, could Russia cause a meltdown through a digital infiltration?  Could they shut down our grid?  Strengthening ability to stop such traffic is vital.  Similarly, limit locations in Eastern Europe, where fake news is being spread from.  
  • Gradual escalation of counter cyber attacks.  The recently elevated Cyber Command (https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/08/18/statement-donald…) should press Russian and other sources of fake news with Denial of Service attacks.  We could escalate over time with increasingly sophisticated attacks against state actors or oligarchs.  Coupling with tougher economic sanctions, cyber attacks could increase internal pressure on Putin from the oligarchs to act.  
  • Verify Voting with Paper Backup.  Trump's bogus claims and commission around voter fraud obscure the very real issue that the devices we use to vote, may not be safe from tampering.  We know that voting machines were hacked in the 2016 election.  We don't know to what degree and many State Secretaries of State are looking for assistance from the federal government.  I'm a technologist, but I think we need to admit to ourselves that the surest way to verify votes is to couple electronic systems with a paper backup.

For better or worse, Hillary Clinton re-emerged this last week.  Her appearances and her book put the issue of Russian meddling and interference with our Presidential election squarely back on the table.  Indeed, today she would not take challenging the election off the table, if Russia interference was found to have significantly affected the election.  I don't know what the answer should be if Russia for example hacked voting machines in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.  

But we already know that Russia intervened.  If progressives want to make sure we don't have another four years of Trump, we must cover all of our bases, including ensuring that the Russian autocrat doesn't continue his attack on the democracy.  Doing so requires an acknowledgement of the conflict in which we find ourselves with a willingness to stand up and fight back.