WASHINGTON — The Russian hacking operation goes far beyond busting and manipulating western elections, with a cadre of “cyber-warriors” recruited and training to rain infrastructure havoc on any and all opponents of Moscow, a Russian expert warned Friday.
Daniil Turovsky, an investigative journalist and analyst at the Wilson Institute’s Kennan Institute, said the Russian Defense Ministry selects hackers from both professional and criminal ranks — using lures ranging from free apartments with washing machines to the threat of a harsh jail cell.
“If you are ready to use you knowledge…we will give you an opportunity,” one recruiting video has shown. “Learn how to do a cyber attack.”
Russian hacking has grabbed the collective attention of the U.S. and EU as a threat to infrastructure, banking, elections, and national security. The forum was sponsored by The Wilson Institute’s Kennan Institute, whose goal is improving American expertise and knowledge about Russia, Ukraine, and other states in the region.
While the U.S. is focused on Russian cyber manipulation in the 2016 elections, Europe and Ukraine were targets of a sophisticated and growing attack again various parts of their infrastructure. The 2018 Olympics may be next.
Asked if this is a rehearsal for Russian development of a kinetic cyber weapon, Turovsky bluntly said “Yes.” He said the cyber-warriors primarily operate out of Russia, the Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan.
“No one is outside the scope of the hacking campaign,” Turovsky said. “Every country, every journalist, every opposition (individual)..is a target,” he said. He said the choice given to hackers was simple: either work for the government or go to jail.
The U.S. intelligence community concluded last year that Russian hackers probed election systems in at least 21 states before the 2016 election, although there’s no evidence any vote tallies were affected.
“We have seen no evidence that the Russian government has changed its intent or changed its capability to cause duress to our election system. That may not be the only concern we have in the future,” Bob Kolasky, an acting deputy undersecretary at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), told a group of election officials gathered in Washington, D.C., this week.
On Friday, responding to reports of ongoing Russian hacking of Senate emails and other government entities, Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., called on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to update lawmakers on steps taken to prevent Russian meddling.
“Russia is just getting started and the hacks, forgeries, and influence campaigns are going to get more and more sophisticated,” he said in a release. He called for “urgent action” by the administration “to ensure that our adversaries cannot undermine the framework of our political debates and the attorney general should come back to Congress and explain what steps he’s taken since last year.”
Since recruitment of cyber warrior began in earnest just over three years ago, at least 400 hackers have been put to work by the Defense Ministry, Turovsky said. The pitch is often called “technical education on behalf of national defense” as part of “Science Squadrons,” he said.
Cyber-warrior cadres were created beginning in the spring of 2014, he said, strew in various parts of the Defense Ministry.
Recruitment of “professional” hackers can begin as early as grade school. University directors have been ordered to be headhunters for cyber-warriors. To attract criminals or illegal hackers, the government makes the offer and conditions so lucrative the hackers make the jump. Sometimes they are never heard from again after all the information they have “is extracted,” Turovsky said.
Turovsky said the Russian hacking community has a rule — “If you work (hack) in Russia, you will end up in jail.”
Ironically, while Russia is successfully training cyber warriors and implementing exercises, Moscow also faces the same treatment from homegrown hackers who hack top officials emails, provide dragging information to outside sources and heist bank funds, Turovsky said.