Don’t believe what Putin is saying about ‘patriotic’ Russian hackers

Publication Type: 
Other Writing
Publication Date: 
June 7, 2017

The last two days have seen two major developments regarding Russian hacking. First, Russian President Vladimir Putin tacitly admitted that Russian hackers might have influenced the U.S. election, but claimed that any hackers were just patriots, acting independently of the Russian government. Then The Intercept published a leaked NSA report stating that Russian military intelligence had tried to penetrate U.S. voting systems. Tim Maurer co-directs the Cyber Policy Initiative at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and is the author of the forthcoming Cambridge University Press book “Cyber Mercenaries.” I asked him a series of questions about these dramatic events.

President Putin, in an interview, suggested that patriotic Russian hackers had perhaps acted entirely independently of the Russian government. He also claimed that state hackers have never interfered with foreign elections. How credible are these claims, given your research and the newly leaked NSA report?

Many Russian hackers, including those engaged in cybercrime, are politically motivated and patriotic. It is therefore possible that they could act autonomously of the government while their actions still benefit the Kremlin. However, the January 2017 joint report of the U.S. intelligence community paints a very different picture detailing that the Russian government was directly involved in interfering with the U.S. elections in 2016. Moreover, even if Russian hackers acted independently, it doesn’t meant that Moscow couldn’t have stopped them given the power of its security services, especially after President Obama’s warnings.

Why might Putin have wanted to admit that Russian hackers were involved in the U.S. election, even if he doesn’t admit that they were likely working with the state in some way?

With the recent allegations about Russia’s military intelligence targeting U.S. voting software suppliers, more and more details are becoming available about what looks like a comprehensive, multifaceted operation targeting U.S. elections in 2016. After the Kremlin tried to deflect initial reports about the Kremlin’s involvement as “nonsense,” such attempts are losing their effectiveness as more and more details to the contrary come to light. Bear in mind that this issue is not only closely watched in the U.S. but around the world and Moscow needs to be mindful of the court of public opinion not just in Washington but elsewhere, be it Beijing, New Delhi or Berlin. With Putin now pointing to Russian hackers acting independently of the Russian government, he might be trying to maintain plausible deniability while also identifying a potential scapegoat (that he might eventually be willing to sacrifice on the geopolitical altar).

Read the full piece at The Washington Post