FPI Conference Call: Russian Interference in Foreign Elections

Key Quotations

Russian Cyber Activities

“Russia has been really developing offensive cyber capabilities for many years. These threat groups, many security companies follow these, obviously the intelligence agencies as well. They really consist of professional, very skilled practitioners whose day job is to carry out these attacks. They receive specific orders on which institutions to target and what kind of information is needed.” – Patrik Maldre

“This particular threat actor has been attacking a variety of countries. It was the same Fancy Bear malware used in the Ukraine central election commission servers, French TV attacks, a lot of different attacks have been associated with this.  These are threat actors that are conducting multiple operations at the same time. Their malware might be present in dozens if not hundreds of organizations at the moment.  But it’s a whole different story when they start using this to overtly attack an election cycle.” – Patrik Maldre

“A very large portion of the Ukrainian power grid was disabled by a malware attack just last winter. So these are the kinds of things that have been happening, and they haven’t really made it into the U.S. public consciousness, but we’re now starting to see this is becoming very relevant to the survival and the healthy operation of our own democracy.” – Hannah Thoburn

Implications of the DNC Hack

“To send these documents or this information to media outlets or to publish them publicly signals an intent not just to know and understand things about the political process, but crucially to play an active role in it. With this disclosure, the DNC hack really transitioned from espionage into the realm of influence operations.” – Patrik Maldre

“What we’ve seen in this latest case is well beyond gathering intelligence. This is an effort to at a minimum disrupt the U.S. political system, the presidential campaign. Possibly the goal is to embarrass one candidate or support another but I agree with Patrik that this is an attack on the American political system, it’s not an attack on the DNC, it could have been an attack on the RNC, it could’ve been an attack on anybody.” – David Kramer

The Russian Mindset

“Russia really aims to weaken and destabilize the U.S. and divide the transatlantic institutions and alliances that bind us together and so it’s really no secret at this point that Russia has incorporated signals intelligence and cyber capabilities into the broader arsenal that it uses to achieve these goals.” – Patrik Maldre

“[Russians] say, look you’re meddling in our elections so were going to do the same thing to you. It’s very interesting because what the Russians conceive of as U.S. meddling is entirely different. It is essentially … supporting a foundation that monitors elections and calls for free and fair elections. That’s the Russian idea of U.S. meddling in an election.” – Hannah Thoburn

“We need to understand the kind of Russia we’re talking about these days, which is a Russia that was very pleased to see the flow of refugees into Europe, exacerbating a refugee crisis there; a Russia that has supported the murderous Assad regime in Syria, along with Iran; a Russia that has invaded its neighbors, Ukraine starting in 2014, Georgia, 2008…. They demonize us, they vilify us, they threaten us. They talk about using nuclear weapons. They buzz our aircraft and our ships. And so this is not a benign regime in the least.  And I think we have to look at this hacking incident against that backdrop, that this is just the latest of many very disturbing developments we’ve seen coming out of Moscow.” – David Kramer

Russian Interference in European Elections

“It is really in central and Eastern Europe that they’ve really been able to practice and hone these techniques and you’re now starting to see that they’re comfortable enough with them to start to export them to other parts of the world.” – Hannah Thoburn

“[Russia] has provided direct open support for Marine Le Pen in France in the hope that that support would boost her standing in France. It supported forces in Greece and Italy. So Russian interference in other countries’ politics and elections is not a new phenomenon and it has moved beyond just Russia’s immediate borders.” – David Kramer

“I’ve argued for a long time that Putin’s greatest export is corruption. But in order to export it, we have to import it. And so we in the west need to do a much better job of cleaning up our own systems, of restoring a sense of shame and honour that seem to have disappeared. It shouldn’t be acceptable to openly take Russian money, it shouldn’t be acceptable to covertly take Russian money and yet that does seem to be happening in our systems.” – David Kramer

Potential Western Responses

“For starters, assuming we are confident that Russia was behind this hacking we should publicly say so. … Beyond that there are a number of options that could include a cyberattack of some sort, it could include going after individuals in these agencies, sanctioning them, making sure allies are on board.” – David Kramer

“The US government and other western governments really want to keep their [offensive cyber] capabilities under wraps just because as soon as the technical characteristics of these capabilities are known, opponents can take action to reduce their effectiveness or make them not work at all. There are offensive capabilities to use, the question is, does this particular case get over the threshold needed to trigger a response.” – Patrik Maldre

“Russians get most of their news and information from TV and so taking over television was the way for Putin to make sure he had control over the way Russians receive their news and information. We, in my view, should not engage in counter-propaganda, we should support fact-based journalism to help get news and information inside Russia as well to Russian-speaking populations and countries along Russia’s border to let them know what’s really happening inside their country.” – David Kramer


Speaker Biographies

David J. Kramer joined The McCain Institute as Senior Director for Human Rights and Democracy in November 2014. Before that, he served for four years as President of Freedom House. Prior to that, he was a Senior Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Mr. Kramer served eight years in the U.S. Department of State, including as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor; Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs (responsible for Russia, Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus affairs as well as regional non-proliferation issues); and Professional Staff Member in the Secretary’s Office of Policy Planning; and Senior Advisor to the Undersecretary for Global Affairs. Mr. Kramer has been an Adjunct Professor at the Elliott School for International Affairs at The George Washington University. Before joining the U.S. Government, Mr. Kramer worked at the Project for the New American Century, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Prior to moving to Washington, he was a Lecturer in Russian Studies at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. and a Teaching Fellow at Harvard University. He also served as an analyst for the Christian Science Monitor Network during the collapse of the Soviet Union. A native of Massachusetts, Mr. Kramer received his M.A. in Soviet studies from Harvard University and his B.A. in Soviet Studies and Political Science from Tufts University. Mr. Kramer is a member of the board of directors of the Halifax International Security Forum and a Member of the Advisory Council for the George W. Bush Presidential Center’s Human Freedom Project.

Patrik Maldre is Managing Partner at Retel Partners, an Estonia-based consulting firm focusing on cyber security. He has been Adjunct Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), where he led the CEPA Cyber Defense Initiative, and Junior Research Fellow at ICDS, a Tallinn, Estonia-based security policy think tank. Previously, Patrik worked in the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs as Desk Officer for Cyber Security Policy. Mr. Maldre is the author of numerous publications on cyber threats and international cyber cooperation in the Baltic Sea region. His current research interests revolve around transatlantic cyber security policy, including cyber deterrence, norms, and confidence-building measures, as well as the use of offensive cyber capabilities during conflict and peacetime by threat actors connected to Russian strategic interests.

Hannah Thoburn is a Research Fellow at the Hudson Institute, where she focuses on Eastern European politics and the transatlantic relationship. Ms. Thoburn is a frequent media commentator on developments in Russia and Ukraine, and her writings have appeared in major publications including The Washington Post, The American Interest, Foreign Affairs, and The Boston Globe. Before joining Hudson, she was a Senior Research Assistant at the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution as well as a Eurasia Analyst at the Foreign Policy Initiative. She also served as a Teaching Fellow at Yale University and spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in southern Ukraine. Ms. Thoburn holds an M.A. in International Relations and a Certificate in International Security Studies from Yale University, and a B.A. in International Affairs from Florida State University. A native of Louisiana, she speaks Russian, Ukrainian, and Spanish.

James Kirchick is a fellow with the Foreign Policy Initiative. A journalist and foreign correspondent now based in Washington, he has reported from Southern and North Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, Europe and the Caucasus. For over three years, Kirchick worked at The New Republic, covering domestic politics, lobbying, intelligence, and American foreign policy. Following The New Republic, he was writer-at-large for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty based in Prague, writing about the politics and cultures of the 21 countries in RFE/RL’s broadcast region. Among the stories he covered were the fraudulent 2010 presidential election in Belarus, ethnic cleansing in Kyrgyzstan, and the Libyan Civil War. He is a Daily Beast correspondent, a columnist for Ha’aretz and the New York Daily News, and writes the "Continental Drift" column on Europe for Tablet. Kirchick has previously worked for The New York Sun, the New York Daily News, and The Hill. Kirchick was born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts and graduated from Yale College in 2006.

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