Amir Cohen / Reuters A close-up of the head of a "Cyber Horse," made from thousands of infected computer and cell phone bits, is seen on display at the entrance to the annual Cyberweek conference at Tel Aviv University, Israel June 20, 2016.

Cyber Showdown

How Russian Hacking Works

When Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was asked about Russia’s potential involvement in the recent hack of Democratic National Committee emails, he appeared genuinely surprised, just stopping short of giving a four-letter word in response. Indeed, the most amazing thing in this rapidly escalating showdown between Russia and the United States is that Lavrov was probably not acting. Apparently, he had not been consulted.

Since the annexation of Crimea, something strange has happened in the Russian government’s handling of sensitive issues, both inside and outside of the country. Many Western diplomats noted that the Russian Foreign Ministry is no longer in charge of defining policy for Ukraine or Syria. Inside of the country, meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin has replaced politicians in key government offices with his own bodyguards. Regional governors are so stupefied by the purges the Kremlin started last September (there are already three governors under arrest) that they refrain from doing anything in the regions they are supposed to be in charge of.

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton looks at a computer screen during a campaign stop at Atomic Object company in Grand Rapids, Michigan, U.S. March 7, 2016.

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton looks at a computer screen during a campaign stop at Atomic Object company in Grand Rapids, Michigan, U.S. March 7, 2016.

Only Putin and his entourage can make decisions, and there always seems to be someone in the group with a ready solution when Putin faces another pressing issue. The more sensitive the matter for the Kremlin, the more drastic the ideas tend to be. The U.S. elections are the most sensitive of all. Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton is seen as a tough and uncompromising adversary. The common assumption is that with Clinton in the White House, sanctions on Russia will remain in place. The Kremlin also believes that Clinton, as secretary of state, supported the protests in Moscow in 2011–12. For Putin, this is reason enough to go on the offensive.

Most Kremlin offensives include an aggressive cyber component: denial-of-service attacks on neighboring countries to teach them a lesson; the leak of intercepted phone conversation between Victoria Nuland, the assistant secretary of state for Europe, and Geoffrey Pyatt, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, to provoke a quarrel between the United States and

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