Russian Hackers: Myths and Reality
Valdai Discussion Club Conference Hall (Bolshaya Tatarskaya 42, Moscow, Russia
List of speakers

The scandal around the alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential elections led to numerous negative consequences both in American political life and in international politics. The conflict between the White House and the Congress continues to develop along the growing polarization of the American society. The crisis in US-Russia relations only worsened after Donald Trump’s coming to power. He is forced to prove to his opponents the lack of ties with Moscow by making demonstratively anti-Russian steps.

In the public discourse of the United States and other Western countries, the notion "Russian hackers" who are conducting  an undeclared cyberwar against democratic systems by the order of the Russian authorities, has taken deep roots, but the evidence to confirm Moscow's involvement in cyber incidents is either classified or does not stand up to criticism. Nevertheless, such accusations prove to be sufficient for the introduction of political and economic sanctions against Russia, which confirm a negative trend in bilateral relations.

The so-called "Russian trace" in the American elections was discussed during the Valdai Club event, held on August 14 in Moscow. According to the participants, this topic has become an independent factor of the American domestic policy, and the current nature of the cyber threat discussion in Western society, in which there is no need for exhaustive evidence of the involvement of a state or non-state actor in cyberattacks to take sometimes disproportionate countermeasures, can have far-reaching negative consequences.

Pavel Sharikov, head of the Center for Applied Research of the Institute of the USA and Canada of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the author of the Valdai Paper titled "‘Russian Hackers’ in the US Election: Myths and Reality," recalled that American accusations against Russia boil down to two separate events. First, the hacking of the servers of the Democratic Party National Committee in June 2016, when nearly 20,000 e-mail messages were disclosed and later posted on the Wikileaks website. Second, the media support, which, according to the American intelligence community, was Trump-friendly Russian information resources RT and Sputnik.

Evidence of Russian intervention relating to the first episode is a state secret. What is there to discuss? "Perhaps this is an interception of conversations, or the result of the hacking Russian databases," suggested Oleg Demidov, PIR Center consultant on cybersecurity strategy. "But we'll never know this. This information is intended only for the eyes of senior US officials and will be kept secret for a very long time." At the same time, as Pavel Sharikov pointed out, even in regard to evidence, which will only be presented to a narrow circle of persons, there is only a "high degree" of certainty, nothing more.

The situation is even worse with the reliability of evidence intended for the general public and released so far. Many of them are of very doubtful character, Demidov noted. For example, the IP-addresses were specified, and it was determined that the e-mail hackers were located on the territory of Russia. However, later it became clear that half of these addresses belong to the Tor network, which makes senseless the location of the attackers.

The lack of convincing evidence of Russian interference in the US elections did not stop the Obama administration from imposing sanctions against Russian officials in December last year. The “Russian trace” became a key topic of the Russian-American relations, which was raised during the bilateral meeting between Presidents Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump at the G20 summit and at the talks of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. But, as Pavel Sharikov noted in the Valdai Paper, the charges can not be refuted, since evidence is not provided.

At the current level of technological development it is impossible to make effective attribution of cyberattacks, the experts said. Moreover, it is impossible to establish their employer. According to Sharikov, technically the servers of the Democratic National Committee could be hacked by citizens of any state, including Russia. The question is who and by whose order analyzed thousands of e-mail messages of Democrats. "In Russia there are no experts, who would have known the American elections at the level, at which the analysis of these documents was made," he said.

It is interesting that the measures to protect the US electoral system from cyberattacks, taken after the hacking of the Democratic National Committee, do not guarantee that such episodes will not be repeated. The electronic infrastructure related to the elections was classified as critical, but in June 2016, it was not it which suffered. "You can protect yourself from attacks against the bulletin processing system," Demidov sid, "but it's almost impossible to stop attacks against the e-mail services."

One of the important domestic political consequences of the scandal surrounding the "Russian trace" in the American elections is an increasingly broad discussion of possible impeachment of President Trump. But, according to Pavel Sharikov, the probability of this is rather small. "It is much more profitable for Congressmen to have a president who is kept under pressure and is not free from such serious accusations. Therefore, in my opinion, the issue of impeachment will not be developed," he said. Moreover, US Vice President Mike Pence will continue the policy of Trump, if he comes to power as a result of impeachment.

Thus, the Congress is interested in a weak president and actually supports the state of instability of the American political system, contributing to further polarization of society. At the same time, in the public consciousness the cyberattacks with some external forces behind become something of a magic, Demidov noted. "There is no need for exhaustive evidence of the involvement of the enemy," he said. "And the rooting of magical consciousness leads to a degradation in the dialogue level."

Another important consequence of the hullabaloo around the "Russian hackers" was the devaluation of the "cyberwar" concept, Valdai Club experts noted. More and more statements appear, that NATO countries must give a coordinated response to cyberattacks, including the use of Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty concerning collective self-defense. Demidov recalled that this article can be applied in two conditions: the existence of human casualties and the massive physical destruction of the infrastructure. It is obvious that even in case of hacking of the electoral infrastructure, nothing like this can happen.

Internationally, the scandal with "Russian hackers" led to fears of foreign interference in elections in other Western countries. One of the potential goals of such an intervention is Germany, where the elections to the Bundestag will be held on September 24. Sabine Fischer, Head of Eastern Europe and Eurasia Research Division at German Institute for International and Security Studies (SWP), professor of the Free University of Berlin, who participated at the expert discussion via video conference, believes that the probability of this interference is extremely small. According to her, the German society is stable and consolidated, which is confirmed by the decline in the popularity of such non-systemic movements as PEGIDA and "Alternative for Germany". "If we talk about external interference into the political situation, then there are simply no "entry points”, she said. "On the whole, the political situation in Germany is more stable than in other European countries."

The scandal around the "Russian hackers" led to numerous negative political consequences, but there is still a hope that it will initiate more constructive interaction between governments and private companies engaged in software development, Oleg Demidov believes. "As their products are compromised because of such operations, the corporate sector will try to force states to operate within a more reasonable framework so as not to undermine consumer confidence in their products," he said.

But another, more risky scenario is possible. If "something goes wrong" as a result of the cyber-operation planned by this or that state, a situation like the Caribbean crisis may arise, which, on the one hand, will create a serious danger for all participants, and on the other - force them to sit down at the negotiating table and develop a framework for cybersecurity dialogue between each other and private corporations.