In the unsettling landscape of Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine, cyber remains one of the most enduring mysteries.
Even before Russian troops invaded Ukraine in February, many experts in the West, in Ukraine, and in Russia believed Moscow would use cyberattacks to inflict major damage on Ukraine prior to or after the start of the military offensive. Indeed, Russia has extensive and formidable cyber capabilities. Reality, however, has played out differently, writes Andrei Soldatov in Europe’s Edge.
Exactly why cyber has not been a consequential front in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is unknown. It may be that Ukrainian cyberspace proved to be much better protected than some thought. Or it may be that Russia did not use its offensive cyber capabilities because the Kremlin interfered in every aspect of the preparation of the war, from military planning to cyber activities. The Kremlin wanted the invasion to play out as a “special operation” (in the Kremlin’s words), not a conventional military offensive. In this, as in much else, the Kremlin greatly miscalculated.
While an answer to the mystery of Russian cyber successes and failures in and around Ukraine is beyond the scope of this report, the case is nonetheless instructive, underlining the importance of understanding how Russian cyber operations are governed. The political element has always been decisive in the Russian cyber playbook, much more so than in other parts of the Russian security state. It, thus, comes as no surprise that over the years the command-and-control structure managing Russian cyber operations has developed into something very different.
The list of Russian cyber actors is long and complicated. It includes private entities, both legitimate and criminal, alongside traditional security services, the military, and the top political level where decisions are made. The relationship among these actors has changed quite significantly in the past six years. This report is an attempt to map the Russian cyber landscape and to help understand the intricate web of cyber actors.
Key Russian cyber actors include:
- The FSB: The Federal Security Service (Federalnaya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti; FSB) is a major domestic security and intelligence agency. In cyber, the FSB’s capabilities are divided between those the agency has been building since the late 1990s (the 18th Center, or Information Security Center) and the capabilities the FSB acquired in 2003 when it absorbed several departments of the Russian electronic intelligence (ELINT) agency, the Federal Agency for Government Communications and Information, or FAPSI (the 16th Center of the FSB or the Center of Electronic Intelligence in Communications).
- The SVR: The Foreign Intelligence Service (Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki; SVR) is Russia’s spy agency, a direct successor to the foreign intelligence branch of the KGB. The agency never went through any structural reforms, but its capabilities were significantly expanded in the 2010s, including in cyber.
- The military: The cyber capabilities in Russia’s military are run by two directorates within Russia’s General Staff: the GU (or the Main Intelligence Directorate and the 8th These two directorates run operations and supervise Russian cyber troops and the military research and development effort. Cyber command was never launched despite several attempts in the early 2010s.
- The Presidential Administration: The direct successor to the Central Committee of the Communist Party, the Presidential Administration supervises Russia’s intelligence and security services. An integral part of the administration is Russia’s Security Council, which provides strategic thinking in all areas of national security, including cyber; it is also a government body tasked with maintaining contact with its Western counterparts, including a cyber “red line” between Moscow and Washington.
- Private cybersecurity companies: These companies are tied into Russia’s cyber effort via networks of official and unofficial contacts. Their role is to provide expertise and help with recruitment efforts.
Despite this broad range of actors involved in cyber operations on various fronts, Russia doesn’t have a unified cyber command. Rather, coordination with the political decision-makers is done at the Presidential Administration level, with Russia’s Security Council an integral part of the process. Moreover, unlike in the conventional field of operations, there is no strict division of labor between the agencies in the cyber domain. Agencies traditionally focused on foreign targets have attacked domestic targets (including nongovernmental organizations, journalists, and the Russian opposition). Outside Russia, the military has targeted political and private industry and the SVR and FSB have attacked military targets, and vice versa.
While reliable data are limited, this report delves deeply into the history and evolution of Russia’s cyber actors, revealing a remarkably fluid and informal landscape, which is often difficult to interpret and navigate even for those who operate within it. What emerges is a system of cyber operations that is:
- Coordinated through a set of political processes centered on the Presidential Administration and the Security Council, rather than a traditional, military-style command structure;
- Characterized by significant overlap in mission and capability, often leading to competition for resources and sometimes to problems of coordination and conflict;
- Subject to a significant degree of informality and political maneuvering, as different actors report to the Presidential Administration and Security Council via different channels and with differing degrees of accountability; and
- Heavily dependent on the private sector for training, recruitment, and technology, leading to a high degree of informal interagency integration at the grassroots level.
© Copyright LaPresse