FPI Conference Call Wrap-Up: Russian Interference in Foreign Elections

July 29, 2016

Yesterday, FPI hosted a conference call to discuss Russian interference in foreign elections, to include its reported hack of the Democratic National Committee. The speakers on the call were David J. Kramer of the McCain Institute, Patrik Maldre of Retel Partners, and Hannah Thoburn of the Hudson Institute. FPI believes that the following insights shared by the experts will be especially useful to lawmakers and their staff as well as all those in understanding the implications of Russia’s cyber activities and interference in foreign elections.

A full recording of the conference call is also available on the FPI website.


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

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