2020 A Year Of Living Dangerously
As we enter 2020, it appears all too obvious that information warfare (IW) across the globe will worsen. Federal officials expect new attacks for the 2020 elections and have now warned Moscow that they will retaliate if such attacks do occur. Interference in elections, however, is not a Russia only affair. China has interfered in Taiwan's and other Asian elections and is conducting a large, well-funded campaign to insert itself into U.S. media even as it conducts massive influence operations here and globally. Although several worthwhile initiatives have been launched to counter Russian and other cyber and information warfare, the truth is that we are still falling behind. The fact that at least 30% if not 46 % of U.S. soldiers exposed to Russian IW say Russia is an ally shows the lack of adequate defense planning and Moscow's systematic offensiveness. Likewise, the revelation that all manner of private industries such as the electric grid, have been hacked, along with the revelation of the recent hacking into U.K.-U.S. trade negotiations demonstrates that neither the public nor the private sector are as effective in defending their secrets as they claim.
In fact, it would be more accurate to say that in the face of multiple global cyber strikes and systematic information warfare by Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea that these offensively minded states evidently think they are still winning. They have expanded their attacks on a global scale, developed new techniques like false flag operations whereby hackers hack into a third party's network and deceive others into thinking they are communicating with it. And at the same time, as they expand their systematic attacks against their targets all over the globe, they are also displaying more overt collaboration. Earlier this year, Russian information warriors overtly advocated on behalf of Chinese policies in Europe, and the announcement by Putin of a Sino-Russian alliance leads us to suspect or at least to consider that they are collaborating on cyber and information warfare as well. Certainly, a close study of Russian and Chinese thinking on information warfare strongly suggests an overlapping approach even if their vocabularies and strategic cultures and traditions are quite different.
If anything, these attackers appear to have become more brazen, suggesting that these efforts at exposure and defense are not seriously limiting their operations. As scholars have underscored, much of Russian thinking on IW and cyber updates long-standing pillars of Russian military thinking through the use of new technologies. Thus, Moscow still regularly employs the canard that the U.S. is responsible for fomenting insurgencies, in today's case, Islamic insurgencies, across the globe, a tired old chestnut of the 1970s and 1980s. Likewise, and building upon this old theme of U.S support for insurgencies against friends of Russia, Russia has also shown that it is perfectly ready to resurrect tired and discredited canards, e.g., that the Azeri airline Silkway Airlines is supporting the CIA efforts to support terrorists in the Middle East and Africa,. Indeed, Moscow has even resurrected the originally disproved canards by a journalist who was already discredited for this two years ago.
Neither is this the only case of such overt contempt for Western operations. The hacking into U.S.-U.K. trade talks is another symptom of such behavior, and the continuing interference in Western elections, including the U.S. election cycle in 2018 and preparing for those in 2020, shows this is continuing. Similarly, we see a systematic disinformation campaign throughout Africa, in Spain in order to inflame the Catalonian issue, and ongoing efforts to use Balkan media for systematic disinformation either on behalf of China or to attack Western institutions, governments, and policies, as in the aforementioned Silkway Airlines issue. None of this suggests grounds for believing that we are actually making progress in countering this scourge, quite the opposite.
Indeed, it seems clear that far too many public and private institutions still refuse to take seriously the fact that Moscow is at war with the U.S. and its allies and that other states: China, Iran, North Korea are emulating its outlook and tactics. It is all too easily conceivable that actually more than one hostile foreign government will find ways to intervene in our impending election campaign and may well join forces with another such rogue operator to implement those attacks. It also is equally plausible that we will see such intervention in other countries' elections in 2020 as Russia and China have already gained considerable expertise in this field. The recent revelations of the scope of Chinese influence and IW operations in Australia certainly can attest to the scope and thoroughness of China's influence operations. And there is no reason to suspect that it has confined its attention exclusively to Australia. Therefore, as regards information and cyberwar, we have ample reasons for suggesting that 2020 will be a year of living dangerously.
Stephen Blank, Ph.D., is a Senior Fellow and resident Russia expert at the American Foreign Policy Council. Previously, he worked as a professor at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College at Carlisle Barracks, PA. The views expressed here do not represent those of the U.S. Army, Defense Department or the U.S. Government.