There’s never been any doubt that cyber warfare is a unique facet of the national defense apparatus that comes with unique challenges and equally specific best practices. However, there’s something to be said for the Naval tradition of firing “a shot across the bow” of your opponent. The phrase usually refers to firing a warning shot past an adversary’s vessel to let them know that you’re watching them — but in the digital realm, it comes in the form of a simple message.
The Defense Department has been tight-lipped about how exactly that message is being sent, but according to recent statements made by the U.S. Cyber Command, Russian operatives identified by the U.S. military as working to influence or illegally effect the outcome of the upcoming 2018 midterm elections are being contacted directly by American agents and informed that they’ve been outed and are now having their activities tracked. These messages do not include any threat of repercussion or retribution, but according to American Defense Officials, the threat of sanctions should be well understood by those they’ve engaged.
Some might call this effort a measured response to what has been revealed to be a wide-spread and concerted effort to create political upheaval within the United States. Influence efforts tied to the 2016 presidential election led to Americans largely misunderstanding the nature of Russian’s hybrid warfare efforts, as they viewed it through a media-borne scope of Right versus Left. The truth, however, is that Russia isn’t working for the benefit of either political party; they’re working for the benefit of Moscow.
Last week, the Department of Justice unsealed charges against a Russian woman named Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova, 44, of St. Petersburg, who has been called the “chief accountant” for Russia’s current influence campaign tied to the upcoming midterm elections. According to the indictment, Khusyaynova and the rest of her group have been operating specifically to “sow division and discord” within the American political structure. She has been tied specifically to the purchase of website domains, Facebook and Instagram advertising, and Twitter accounts, all with the singular aim of promoting divisive content that encourages Americans to squabble with one another.
Among the efforts identified in these new Justice Department documents were initiatives to attack Republicans that didn’t overtly support Trump’s proposed Mexican border wall, in an effort to fracture the party — highlighting “scandals” that took place while Special Council Robert Mueller was heading the FBI in order to discredit his investigation into Russian involvement in the recent presidential election, and even attacking former Senator John McCain immediately following his death.
In recent weeks, a video of a female activist pouring bleach on men’s pants on a subway train, intended to evoke disputes with feminists online, was outed as Kremlin-funded propaganda.
The Pentagon has not acknowledged how many Russian operatives they have identified or engaged thus far, and some contend that simple warnings will do little to dissuade the Russian effort.
“It is very important to identify the source and essentially be able to neutralize that source,” explained Laura Rosenberger, the director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy. “These are networks that operate. The more we can identify the key nodes in those networks and remove them by taking them offline is really how we will get at this problem in a systemic way and not play Whac-a-Mole.”