On Russia and their strategic goals

I have been reading the Department of Homeland Security’s Joint Analysis Report, “GRIZZLY STEPPE – Russian Malicious Cyber Activity,” well, because I am a nerd and I like these things. But also, because I needed to refine my understanding of what is being reported about the Russian “hacking” and the decision by the President to take diplomatic action against Russia.

This is, after all, about an ongoing Russian intelligence and information operations campaign and I am, after all, a retired intelligence officer who now teaches this at the college level. Seems like something I should keep tabs on, eh?

  1. Does it surprise anyone that Russia has strategic goals as well as national interests? I would hope not. The US has them. As does Britain, as does every country. It comes with being a country, it comes with leadership and men and women in those leadership roles.
  2. Does it comes as any surprise that Russia has intelligence agencies? OK, maybe there are a few Americans who would be surprised to learn that Russia has more than one, but these are the name ones that would be surprised to learn that the US says that it has 18, if you include the Office of the Director of National Intelligence itself as one (and you should, most definitely.)
  3. Does it come as any surprise that Russia would be conducting intelligence operations in support of its strategic goals as well as its national interests? I would hope not. The US has been doing this since before the US was a country. Every other country on this planet has and continued to do this, every single day in which the Earth rotates around the sun. We conduct intelligence operations in order to gather information in support of decision making requirements, but we also conduct intelligence operations in order to have effects on the world in order to better align aspect towards our needs.
  4. Does it come as any surprise that Russia has intelligence operations that are long term efforts or intelligence operations? Hmmmm, I would hope not. The CIA ran Adolf Tolkachev as a source in Moscow, where he worked for the defense firm Phazotron, for about six years, before the Soviets figured out that he was the source of information being leaked to the West, arrested, and killed him and members of his family. Six years. Tolkachev is called the Billion Dollar Spy, for the amount of information he provided to the CIA and to the damage he caused to the Soviets. (This historical piece by the CIA is well worth reading.) To make a modern comparison, the program behind Stuxnet – the cyber operation targeting Iranian centrifuge operations in support of their nuclear weapons development program – is described in the fantastic book, Countdown to Zero Day, has having started in 2006 and been shutdown in 2012. (It’s another great read.)
  5. Does it come as any surprised that Russia would be conducting any number of concurrent operations, to try and advance their strategic goals as well as their national interests?
  6. Does it come as any surprise that, as a part of their ongoing campaign of cyber-enabled operations directed at the U.S. government and its citizens, Russian intelligence services also exploited opportunities in American political parties that also helped to advance Russian strategic goals as well as their national interests? Or that Russian intelligence personnel masqueraded as third parties, hiding behind false online personas designed to cause the victim to misattribute the source of the attack? I think this is just called being professional, within the intelligence profession.

President-elect Trump’s new White House press secretary expressed more of the same skepticism that Trump himself has been stating recently, publicly questioning not the American reaction to the Russian operations but the Obama administration’s decision to expel 35 Russian diplomats and to close two Russian sites within the US. “One of the questions that we have is why the magnitude of this? I mean you look at 35 people being expelled, two sites being closed down, the question is, is that response in proportion to the actions taken? Maybe it was; maybe it wasn’t but you have to think about that,” Sean Spicer said. I understand that Mr. Spicer is in the Navy Reserves, and maybe he’s just there to be a token mouthpiece for Donald, but expelling spies and closing down spies rings after a spy ring and a spying operation is exposed is actually how the espionage game is played. Walker, Ames, Robert Hanssen, Montes… all of them. Russia would not think it unpresidented, er, I mean, unprecedented in having their intelligence personnel or other diplomatic staff declared persona non grata after this kind of an incident.

The question Trump and others are not asking, and will not ask, is why Americans and the American press are surprised that the average American citizen was so easily influenced by these various efforts. If we aren’t surprised that Russia has interests, that Russia acts to pursue those interests, or that those efforts can by multi-pronged or pursued over a long term, why do we act surprised when we see Russian efforts and effects showing up elsewhere? Russia is, after all, acting to further their strategic goals as well as their national interests.

Is it too hard to apply our own critical thinking and analysis to what we see and read, to think about the sources of our information and their motives before we accept them at face value? Are we too caught up in the short news cycle, and are unwilling to step away from it in order to focus more in those sources we know we should be utilizing – because they are more credible?

Maybe it is. Some of those “expert” political commentator on the TV networks would have to actually think through their ideas on what Russian strategic goals are, and what Russian national interests are, as they relate to the specific issues at hand. That sounds like tough work – tough work, I suppose, if they actually do it. Easy work, if they don’t.

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