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A key American defence has failed, and now Russia fears no reprisal for hacking the US

  • Russia has boldly intruded into vital US infrastructure (elections, nuclear power plants) because they don’t fear a US reprisal.
  • The US has not offered a strong response to Russian cyber attacks despite being aware of it for years.
  • Russia has compromised the US’s ability to enact independent foreign policy with its gains in the cyber domain.

For decades, the US has leveraged the world’s greatest conventional and nuclear military forces to become a superpower that no country would dare attack.

But, in 2017, the country finds itself under attack by nation states in a way unseen since World War II due to a failure of one of the most important pillars of American strength — deterrence.

During the 2016 presidential election, Russia conducted cyber attacks on US voting systems and political networks, according to the US intelligence community. Cybersecurity experts meanwhile attribute a series of recent intrusions into US nuclear power plants to Russia.

While cyber attacks do not kill humans outright in the way that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour did, they degrade the faith of Americans in their political systems and infrastructure in a way that could potentially devastate the country, and furthers the foreign policy goals of the US’s adversaries.

“When Americans have lost trust in their electoral system, or their financial system, or the security of their grid, then we’re gonna be in big trouble,” Eric Rosenbach, a former US Army intelligence officer and former Secretary of Defence Ash Carter’s chief of staff, said at Defence One’s Tech Summit last Thursday.

‘A failure of deterrence’

For decades, the US has relied on the concept of deterrence, or discouraging nation-states from taking action against the US because of the perceived consequences, for protection.

But Russia’s brazen hacks during the US presidential election and recent cyber attacks on Ukraine’s powergrid and infrastructure reveal “a failure of deterrence” on the part of the US, according to Rosenbach.

“Deterrence is based on perception,” said Rosenbach. “When people think they can do something to you and get away with it, they’re much more likely to do it.”

While the US conducts cyber operations, especially offensives, as secretly as possible, mounting evidence shows that the US has not fought back against hacks by adversarial countries as strongly as possible.

After receiving intelligence reports that Russia had been trying to hack into US election systems to benefit then-candidate Donald Trump, former US President Barack Obama told Russian President Vladimir Putin to stop and brought up the possibility of US retaliation.

Obama later expelled Russian diplomats from the US in response to the cyber attack, but cyber security experts say that Russia has continued to attack vital US infrastructure.

Obama putinLamar Salter

A former senior Obama administration official told the Washington Post earlier this year that the US’s muted response to Russia’s 2016 hacking was “the hardest thing about my entire time in government to defend.”

“I feel like we sort of choked,” the official said.

The Washington Post also found that Obama administration’s certainty that Hillary Clinton would win the election prompted them to respond less forcefully.

While Russia’s attacks on vital US voting systems and nuclear power plants highlights recent failures of deterrence, Russia has been sponsoring cyber crimes against the US for years.

“The Russians, and a lot of other bad guys, think that they can get away with putting malware in our grid, manipulating our elections, and doing a lot of other bad things and get away with it. Because they have,” said Rosenbach.

In physical war, the US deters Russia with nuclear arms. In cyberspace, no equivalent measure exists. With the complicated nature of attributing cyber crimes to their culprits, experts disagree on how to best deter Russia, but Rosenbach stressed that the US needs to take “bold” action.

While Rosenbach doesn’t find it likely that Russia would seek to take down the US’s grid in isolation, he pointed out that the nuclear plant intrusions give Russia incredible leverage over the US in a way that could flip the deterrence equation completely, with the US now fearing actions that would anger Russia.

Russia’s malware attacks has been so successful, according to Rosenbach, that the next time the US moves against Russia’s interests, fear of future attacks could “possibly cause the US to change course.” And that would be “a grave defeat for the world’s foremost superpower,” according to Rosenbach.

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