The expulsion and impending sanctions against Russia for cyberattacks on the 2016 presidential election make the new Cold War a few degrees hotter.
It’s yet another development of World War 3.0 – the slow and steady march of nation state sponsored cyber conflict, as entities hit against digital and even critical infrastructures. US president Obama’s casting out of 35 Russian diplomats, accused of facilitating the cyberattack against the Democratic National Committee (DNC) as well as being part of the WikiLeaks dump of Clinton campaign manager John Podesta’s email, came after months of investigation into the cyber intrusions that experts – as well as 17 US agencies including the DHS, FBI and CIA – say points to organizations linked to Russian state entities like the GRU and FSB. The response coincides with a harsh joint report (JAR) by the Department of Homeland Security as well as the FBI, detailing the evidence pointing to Russian hacking and influencing of the 2016 US presidential election. As such, it’s become the most severe diplomatic response since the Cold War. “The retaliatory measures announced by the Obama Administration today are long overdue. But ultimately, they are a small price for Russia to pay for its brazen attack on American democracy,” Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham co-wrote in a statement last week. “The actions the President took today are an important step, but preventing Russia from interfering in our elections will require a sustained response from the next administration and from Congress,” declared Mark Warner, the leading Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
At the heart of the expulsion and even call for greater sanctions is a belief that the Russian cyber unit Fancy Bear, along with attack unit Cozy Bear or APT29, sent out a phishing campaign to infiltrate high level Washington lawmakers and government leadership. The campaign, called Grizzly Steppe by the US intelligence community, was effective in catching hundreds of senators, think tank and political operatives’ personal details, infecting email servers and prompting them to change their email passwords to conduct man-in-the-middle surveillance. Once into these servers, Fancy Bear and the Grizzly Steppe objective was to release incriminating emails, mostly of the DNC and the Clinton campaign, to alter public opinion and sow doubt within the Clinton campaign. So much so that it’s generally believed now that Putin and the Russian state wanted the election to fall to Donald Trump, something Trump vehemently denies as do the Russians. On Thursday, Donald Trump told a team of reporters, “I think we ought to get on with our lives,” as reported by the New York Times. His response is in line with his transition team’s assertion that the evidence of Russian interference is both flawed (“these are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” they had written in a statement) and incomplete to imply that the Russians were steering the election towards a more conciliatory Donald Trump noting that the Republican National Committee’s servers were also probed. The RNC’s information, however, was never released as the DNC’s was. Republican Senator and former presidential candidate John McCain has said that such intrusions are the highest level of conflict. ”When you attack a country, it’s an act of war,” the Arizona senator said on a Ukrainian TV channel, according to a Reuters report. “And so we have to make sure that there is a price to pay, so that we can perhaps persuade the Russians to stop these kind of attacks on our very fundamentals of democracy,” he added.