Russia’s recent mass-scale cyber intelligence operation, targeting multiple government agencies, corporations and think tanks, was a catastrophic event.
The Russians compromised vital U.S. infrastructure, defense and technology industries, and critical government agencies, such as the Departments of Homeland Security, Defense, State, Energy and Treasury. The attackers exhibited highly sophisticated tradecraft, exceptional operational stealth, and extreme patience and determination.
What very few Americans realize is that this is but a single page out of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war plan for defeating America. The success of this operation resulted from a failure to recognize the systemic Russian threat to the United States and treat it with the seriousness it requires. While the American leadership class is focused on the long-range threat from China and fantasies about Mr. Putin deputizing President Trump as a secret agent, the present and ongoing danger from the Kremlin is frighteningly minimized.
A close reading of unclassified, often highly technical, Russian-language sources has convinced me that Russia expects eventual war with the United States and is preparing for it.
We have heard a lot from various U.S. leaders in the past few years about Russia’s cyber warfare prowess. Former CIA and NSA Director Michael Hayden called Mr. Putin’s intervention in 2016 presidential elections the “most successful covert influence campaign in the history of covert influence campaigns.”
Former head of the U.S. European Combatant Command, Gen. Philip Breedlove, referring to Moscow’s skillful employment of cyber operations during Mr. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, marveled at “the most amazing information warfare blitzkrieg … in the history of information warfare.”
But despite billions of dollars spent annually on defense, intelligence and cybersecurity, the feds have achieved little by way of securing the homeland from cyber threats. Moscow continues to “trojanize” U.S. government and corporate systems at will.
To counter the threat from Mr. Putin’s Russia, including from its extraordinarily powerful cyber warfare doctrine, one must first understand the threat and acknowledge that it exists. Intelligence plays a critical role in this, but America’s spooks keep getting caught off guard by Mr. Putin, again and again.
The 9/11 Commission, in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks on our homeland, faulted the Intelligence Community (IC) for its inability to “connect the dots.” It concluded that although our nation was “shocked” by these grave attacks, they “should not have come as a surprise.” Islamist extremists “had given plenty of warning that they meant to kill Americans indiscriminately and in large numbers,“ according the commission’s report.
Similarly, there have been plenty of warning signs that Russia has been mobilizing for a future war with the United States. Mr. Putin’s military planners and defense technologists are developing doctrines, weapons and non-military “special” capabilities that they believe will ensure Moscow’s victory.
Failing to connect to dots, the U.S. national security establishment treats Russia’s various anti-American actions as random machinations against Washington, with no specific purpose. The opposite is true.
Russia’s aggressive actions — such as cyber intrusions into our power grid and nuclear facilities, overflights by Russian military aircraft breaching U.S. air-defense zone, deployments of Russian submarines and spy ships close to U.S. sovereign waters, and Russian spacecraft maneuvering close to U.S. intelligence satellites — to name just a few — are not standalone events. They are important steps in Moscow’s preparations for conflict with Washington. And they must be viewed, accordingly, as indications and warnings — or I&W, in intelligence parlance — of conflict.
These activities allow Mr. Putin’s military planners to identify U.S. vulnerabilities, test-drive new operational concepts, and evaluate U.S. responses so they can be pre-empted or countered. Cyber intelligence operations like the one just inflicted on the United States play a paramount role in what we call in the intelligence business “strategic targeting” and “preparation of the battlespace.”
Alarmingly, we are ill-prepared to deal with the Russian threat — cyber and the rest of it. There is a profound lack of nuanced understanding of the Russian mindset, the motivations for Putin’s behavior, Moscow’s cyber doctrine, and its war fighting strategy. Such expertise requires not only a near-native fluency in the Russian language but also the ability to think as a Russian antagonist, not as an American — skills in short supply in our national security apparatus.
Additionally, the intelligence apparatus has been distracted, for the past four years, by what turned out to be the Russia-Trump “collusion” hoax, largely orchestrated by unscrupulous government officials. The intelligence chiefs put out a faulty intelligence community assessment on Jan. 6, 2017, incorrectly judging Mr. Putin’s primary goal to be helping Mr. Trump win the election, when in fact, the purpose was to foment instability in the country Russia views as its main adversary. That, he achieved. And the dysfunction that befell the national security establishment as a result of the various resulting probes left the American people even more exposed to the Russian threat.
The recent declaration of China as America’s top national security threat by Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe in a Wall Street Journal op-ed will further diminish the IC’s focus on Russia. His well-meaning direction that the $85-billion annual intelligence budget prioritize China will result in the erosion of our intelligence posture on the Russian target. A realistic, candid and politicization-free intelligence assessment of Mr. Putin’s strategic goals toward the United States should not require what has been characterized as a cyber Pearl Harbor waged by Moscow on our homeland.
The incoming presidential administration is bringing back largely the same national security “experts” on whose watch Mr. Putin intervened in the 2016 election and whose boss, Barack Obama, laughed off Mitt Romney’s warning about the Russian threat as the 1980s wanting “their foreign policy back.”
Unlike the Trump administration — which the Kremlin feared — Mr. Biden’s “new” crew is a known quantity to Mr. Putin, as acknowledged by the “former” KGB operative himself during his most recent annual press conference. It appears that when it comes to the Russian malice, the warning lights, as President Trump’s first head of Intelligence DNI Dan Coates put it in 2018, will continue to “blink red.”
• Rebekah Koffler is a Soviet-born, Russian-English bilingual former intelligence officer at the Defense Intelligence Agency and the author of “Putin’s Playbook: Russia’s Secret Plan to Defeat America,” to be released this summer.