In Order to Stop Putin’s Cyber War, We Must Use the Threat of Actual War

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In Order to Stop Putin’s Cyber War, We Must Use the Threat of Actual War

Well, the other shoe finally dropped late yesterday afternoon, per the New York Times:

President Obama struck back at Russia on Thursday for its efforts to influence the 2016 election, ejecting 35 suspended Russian intelligence operatives from the United States and imposing sanctions on Russia’s two leading intelligence services.

Sputnik, which is like the Kremlin’s Breitbart, had a laugh and called the Maryland complex that was shut down a “quaint family vacation spot” for Russian diplomats.

John Schindler, a former NSA spy, is not as flippant about the importance of this building.

The Russian Embassy in the UK joined in on the fun and showed off their photoshop skills from 2004.

Comedy is our natural defense against pain. The fact that Russian media lead with a LOLZ-type story on the complex is instructive. These moves by the Obama administration are certainly not toothless, but they fail to match the seriousness of the crime. I really don’t like how much I’m agreeing with Lindsey Graham these days, and I wholeheartedly endorse every word of his and John McCain’s statement:

The retaliatory measures announced by the Obama Administration today are long overdue. But ultimately, they are a small price for Russia to pay for its brazen attack on American democracy. We intend to lead the effort in the new Congress to impose stronger sanctions on Russia.

Sure, these sanctions will sting. Powerful people connected to Russia’s intelligence services will feel real pain in their wallets and in their careers, but at the end of the day, unless Obama were to nuke the Russian economy with a North Korean-style blacklist, Vladimir Putin won’t feel even a pinch. That’s the thing about dictators—everyone else is expendable. I know this joke has been beaten to death since the tweetstorm heard round the world, but I didn’t get a turn, so I will hopefully be the last person on the dogpile.

Guys (and gals). It’s time for some game theory.

We’ll use poker as an analogy. Say that the person sitting to your left raises every single time you bet. If you’re playing simple ABC Poker (meaning that you’re folding bad hands and playing good ones), this person is taking a lot of your money, because far more bad hands than good ones exist. At some point, you’re going to have to raise this person’s raise just to get them to stop doing it for a bit.

But you can’t only raise when you get good hands. The other person will fold every time you bet, as your strategy will become blatantly apparent: you play strong when you have a good hand, and play weak with a bad one. You’ll never make any money unless you get really lucky. You must bluff and semi-bluff with bad to marginal hands to keep the other person off-balance, thus taking them away from their plan to disrupt your game. Otherwise, they will slowly whittle your bankroll down to nothing.

Barack Obama has played ABC Poker against Vladimir Putin—an expert troll who has been generally causing mayhem in every direction. Combine this with the fact that he knows that the United States will avoid war at all costs, and he is an opponent unbound by the rules of the game…up to a certain point.

That point is certain military conflict with another great power like the United States or China. There is a lot of talk about the power of the Russian forces, but that’s mostly all that it is. They are still a major military force who can bully smaller units like Ukraine’s, but they are at best, triple A baseball to the Hall of Fame military that America possesses. They are still recovering from their post-Soviet collapse, which was a destitute era, as Dale Herspring detailed in his book, Russian Civil-Military Relations:

The Russian Army of the mid 1990s was a far cry from the Soviet Army that preceded it. There was no doubt that Grachev and his colleagues had done their best to restore cohesion and institutional identity. In spite of these efforts, however, the Russian armed forces remained beset by numerous problems. Budgetary allocations were insufficient, discipline was poor, training was far below Soviet—not to mention Western—standards, the army’s equipment and weapons systems were aging, little effort was being made to keep up with modern technological developments, and the military’s resources were being stretched beyond the breaking point to fulfill its peacekeeping missions.

Putin has flooded the army with cash, and Russia has been dramatically upgrading its military for the last decade, but it will take far more time to catch up to our capabilities, and that is before you even get to the issue of formal training. When a great super power like the Soviet Union collapses, it doesn’t do so in an orderly fashion. Implementing policy in a functional democracy is difficult, let alone in whatever the hell the post-Soviet, pre-Putin era was called. When there isn’t a well-communicated and executable goal, we all tend to fall back on instinct or training, and according to Pavel Felgenhauer, a Russian military analyst, the Russian attack in the Donbas region in Ukraine was nearly the same as it was “50 years ago.” Felgenhauer elaborated to the Euromaidan press:

“The arming and equipment of the soldiers does not correspond to contemporary standards. They do not have the arms, the protection, or the communications” that modern armies do. “Nothing has changed in principle.” Russia doesn’t produce “contemporary rifles or normal bullets, or artillery shells” and consequently “shoots with the old ones.”

“There are no sniper rifles and no snipers,” he continues. “There is a clutch of specialists in the FSB who have foreign arms and bullets. Russian tanks are antiquated and poorly armed, and they are “willingly purchased only by those countries which do not have any problems with their birthrates.”

Russian aviation, Felgenhauer continues, “cannot effectively support ground forces, in any case, at night or in bad weather.” Russian avionics are antiquated. And radars of the most advanced kind are produced only in the US. “We used to purchase them, but we can’t get them anymore.” Russia can’t produce equivalents.”

The army that withstood Hitler’s strongest punch and generally ran that entire region for the 20th century is no more, save for its methods and training, which are woefully unequipped to face modern warfare. This is a central Russian weakness, and Obama has refused to exploit it.

I’m not saying that we should go to war with Russia, but they are operating under the assumption that will never ever happen—and they’re right. It would be stupid to go to war with Russia. But the United States has done stupid things before, and part of Russia’s strategy is dependent on us doing stupid things in the future, so why not at least throw full-scale war with NATO on the table as one of the long shot stupid options? The Russians already bombed an empty UK outpost in Syria, so I wouldn’t be opposed to blowing up as much Russian military property as we can without causing any casualties.

If we don’t, this will continue to escalate because we have yet to establish a moral hazard for the Kremlin. Edward Snowden was essentially a Russian SIGINT PR operation designed to embarrass the United States and the West, as they took advantage of a young man with sincerely held beliefs, who at some point found himself in way over his head. Donald Trump is surrounded by people connected to Russian oligarchs, and his son even said in 2008 that “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”

In 2010, the United States very publicly rolled up the Russian spy network that conveniently included Anna Chapman, whom the media fixated on thanks to photo spreads of hers in Maxim like “International Babe of Mystery!” The media took the Russian “break in case of emergency” bait, and the massive news story was drowned under the cacophony of sexual frustration emanating from America’s cable news sets. Ever since then, the Kremlin has been escalating their cyber-attacks against us, now influencing a presidential election—and the man now in the Oval Office sides with the Kremlin’s assessment of the election intel over the CIA’s and FBI’s. We’ve been attacked.

We slapped sanctions on Russia after they invaded Ukraine, yet they still remain there, plotting another offensive. We spent two presidential terms trying to play nice against someone who just kept punching us in the stomach no matter what we did. It’s time to punch back, and make them wonder if maybe we have a knife or even a gun, making hitting us no longer seem worth the effort.

We talk about the amorphousness of the War on Terror all the time, but there is another limitless one whose fire has been raging just as hot for some time now: the first cyber world war. When the United States and Israel destroyed physical installations in Iranian nuclear sites with the Sutxnet virus in 2010, a new era emerged. This war is being fought on multiple digital fronts at all times between both state and non-state actors. Snowden, China hacking literally every U.S. company, October’s DDoS attack through IoT devices that disabled Dyn’s servers and shut down internet access for millions of Americans—all of it is the 21st century’s version of a land grab, and we’re in the midst of the first big dogpile. Perhaps it’s time that we put the threat of a literal battlefield on the table before the digital one leads us to a war-torn reality we cannot avoid.

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