SFS On Topic: Implications of Russian Cyberattack


Computer illustration by Kacper Pempel/Files/Reuters

As early as March 2016, Russian government actors began a series of cyberattacks on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and eventually on the Democratic National Committee (D.N.C.), that became one of the most controversial aspects of the 2016 presidential election. On October 7, 2016, the United States formally accused the Russian government of the cyberattacks in a joint statement by the director of national intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security.

SFS faculty discuss the implications of these attacks on the November election, international legal norms and democratic processes, and potential foreign policy responses.

Attribution of Cyber Attacks

Attribution to a particular individual or nation-state after a cyber attack can be very difficult, according to Dr. Catherine Lotrionte, director of Georgetown University’s Cyberproject. “Unlike traditional conflict, or military or conventional engagements among countries, with the cyber intrusions, the difficulty often is with the attribution–Attributing it to the individuals who are responsible, behind, or instigating the actions,” Lotrionte told SFS Professor Anthony Clark Arend in an interview. “[However], in this case, the United States government has already affirmed and declared that they’ve attributed it to the Russian government.” 

International Law

Cyber intrusions by nation states in order to collect information are not unusual, according to Lotrionte. “One important aspect, if we talk about international law in this regard, intruding into computers to collect information – and if done by a state, we’ll refer to it often as espionage, clandestine collection – that is not new. And in the area of international law and assessing that, international law doesn’t say much; it’s accepted practice among states,” Lotrionte said in her discussion with Arend.

“We’ve seen cyber espionage for a number of years, going back to the 90s, but what the Russians did in this case – or at least what the allegations are – was not just the intrusion for collection purposes. It appears they were actively involved in strategically leaking this information. Leaking it with the intent of…messing up the election. So in the words of international law, what I’ve often thought of this as (although cyber means, so not that we have clarity from an international court)…is violation of the norm of nonintervention,” Lotrionte said.

Lotrionte recently spoke to the Center of Investigative Journalism about the level of severity that legal experts consider Russia cyber attack. “Most legal experts would agree on one thing: Russia’s alleged efforts to swing the presidential election don’t rise to the level of an armed attack – or even a use of force. They were, however, still forbidden under a provision of international law that bans “coercive interference,” according to the article.

Lotrionte could not predict how the Trump Administration would respond to future cyber attacks. “There won’t be one standard threshold or trigger for all occasions,” Lotrionte said. “It will all depend on the nuances of the facts of a specific case.” To read more, click here.

Angela Stent, Director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies, spoke with PBS NewsHour about how the U.S. should attempt to address hacking going forward. “I actually think one of the things that we should do, once the next administration is in office, is to try and work out with the Russians, as we have with the Chinese, at least some kind of a cyber agreement, some rules of the game, which we don’t have now with the Russians,” Stent said. “I’m not saying this would prevent this from happening again, but I think we need to at least try and work out rules of the game with them.” Listen to the full podcast here.

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Economic Sanctions

Of the possible foreign policy tools available to the Trump administration in responding to the Russian cyberattacks, Lotrionte explains that economic sanctions are already in place but also seemingly ineffective in the case of Russia.

“In April of 2015 President Obama signed an executive order allowing for sanctions against those states that conduct cyber hacks. The sanctions that were imposed were a step in the right direction, but it seems like Putin and the people are willing to weather the hard times. I think one of Putin’s public statements is that the people of Russia are willing to eat less to survive the sanctions,” said Lotrionte.

Though Lotrionte argues that targeted sanctions could be more effective in finding weaknesses in Putin’s regime, Angela Stent, director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies, reminds us that the Trump administration has been warming relations with the Kremlin — meaning President Trump may be more likely to ease sanctions rather than enforce new ones.

However, unilaterally easing Russian sanctions “would be another blow to US-EU relations. If sanctions are removed unilaterally it removes a major basis for trust between the two allies,” said Stent to CNN. She explained that the Obama administration took on a difficult task in getting reluctant EU members to impose sanctions in 2015, and only achieved an agreement after a Malaysian Airlines plane flying out of Holland was downed by a Russian-made missile.

“If the sanctions are lifted in the absence of agreement from our European allies and in the absence of the Russians fulfilling what they’re supposed to do with regards to Minsk” — the 2014 agreement to end the conflict — “the Russians have gotten away with what they’ve done in Ukraine.”

Andrew C. Kuchins, senior fellow at the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies, believes easing sanctions poses as big a problem for international relations as for domestic politics. He called for a “revaluation” of the deterioration of U.S.-Russia relations in the Washington Post: “The Trump folks would make a huge mistake if they unilaterally repealed sanctions. Congress would re-legislate them, creating a Jackson-Vanik situation,” he said. Find his full comments here.

Lotrionte presented an alternative, non-covert policy alternative to sanctions, because “even though most countries accept [unilateral sanctions] as part of our international legal framework for dealing with those that violate the law,” Russia maintains the belief that unilateral sanctions are “unlawful.” And, although Russia’s disagreement with international legal norms has not prevented the imposition of sanctions against it, “if we know and we understand that [Russia] may be able to live through the sanctions without them having much of an impact, then we might start thinking about different responses like going to the Security Council,” said Lotrionte.