Dress Rehearsal For A Scandal: How Putin Came To Embrace & Weaponize The Web
The Russia scandal has shown Vladimir Putin to be extraordinarily savvy at using the Internet to advance his agenda by impeding others’ agendas.
In the case of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, this included targeting undecided voters cool to Hillary Clinton with avalanches of fake news and Facebook, Twitter and YouTube accounts that were false fronts for anti-Clinton propaganda and extensive hacking attacks on Democratic computer servers. But for many years, Putin had feared the Internet’s power, while the story of how he eventually came to embrace and use it for malevolent ends reads like a dress rehearsal for the Kremlin’s sabotage of the Clinton campaign in the service of electing Donald Trump.
As a Cold Warrior who headed the dreaded FSB, Russia’s all-powerful counter-intelligence and surveillance service before becoming prime minister and then president in 2000, Putin had only a primitive knowledge of the Internet but understood it as a future battleground for cyberwarfare and the information superhighway a modern-day front line in the conflict between nations.
Putin knew that the U.S., Russia’s arch rival, had a clear technological advantage. But he incorrectly believed that the CIA was an invisible hand controlling the Internet, a logical conclusion for a Soviet-Russian intelligence bureaucrat with a Cold War mindset.
As Russian journalists Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan write in a fascinating, must-read book for people with a more than cursory interest in the Russia scandal, The Red Web: The Kremlin’s War on the Internet:
Vladimir Putin was certain that all things in the world — including the Internet — existed with a hierarchical, vertical structure. He was also certain the Internet must have someone controlling it at the top. He viewed the United States with suspicion, thinking the Americans ruled the web and that it was a CIA project. Putin wanted to end that supremacy. Just as he attempted to change the rules inside Russia, so too did he attempt to change them for the world.
Putin’s catharsis can be traced to 2011 as Arab Spring uprisings spread across the Middle East.
It was only then that he came to understand the open nature of the Internet and the role social media — and Facebook and Twitter in particular — were playing in bringing people into the streets without any organizing structure. But with one foot still stuck in the old mindset, he remained convinced that social media was a tool of the U.S. government and ordered the FSB to make social network technology a priority in order to be able to fight back.
When Putin set out in 2000 to control and eventually harness the Internet, he could not have anticipated using cybersabotage to undermine a foundation of America democracy — the fair and unfettered presidential election. But as Russia got better and better at that game over the next 15 years, including conducting dress rehearsals of a sort against first dissident citizens and then former Soviet republics and satellites that refused to embrace Moscow after the Soviet Union collapsed, the U.S. became fair game and Trump and his campaign ideal patsies.
These were some of the important dress rehearsal dates:
January 2002: In the first known instance of Russian-instigated denial of service attacks, the website of a Chechen separatist website is paralyzed.
April 27, 2007: Russia launches its first major external cyber attack on government websites in the former Soviet republic of Estonia.
July 2008: Russian government hackers take down government websites in the former Soviet satellite of Lithuania.
August 2008: Russian government hackers take down government websites in the former Soviet republic of Georgia.
February 2014: A Russian military report documents how fake personas can be created through Facebook accounts to spread disinformation.
February 22, 2014: Russia responds to an anti-Russian uprising in Ukraine with a tidal wave of propaganda spread on social media.
April 8, 2015: Russian government hacker Fancy Bear, later identified as one of the Democratic National Committee computer server hackers, overrides the programming of the French television network TV5Monde’s 11 channels.
March 2016: A Russian government think tank develops a plan to swing the election to Trump and undermine voters’ faith in the American electoral system.
And who were those often anonymous hackers and trolls?
They were not necessarily committed to Putin, let alone worked for the state, but frequently were committed to helping the Kremlin maintain “plausible deniability,” as the authors of The Red Web put it. Many hacktivists were members of Putin youth groups (the similarities to Hitler Youth are unavoidable) and more often than not worked for free.
The authors believe that it is questionable whether the Kremlin’s cybersabotage of the Clinton campaign, with or without the help of Trump and his campaign, affected the outcome. But they say that:
[I]t certainly propelled Russia right into the heart of the election process and made Putin look like the third player — perhaps even the kingmaker — in the most powerful country of the world.
This cynicism was Vladimir Putin’s gift to America. And certainly has been returned in kind many times over by Donald Trump.
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