Dec 30, 2016 | 00:24 GMT

5 mins read

Hacking Sanctions Are More a Symbol Than a Threat

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

President Barack Obama's administration today imposed a series of punitive measures on Russia for its purported interference in the 2016 presidential election campaign — measures Russia apparently had anticipated well before the U.S. government publicly unveiled allegations of a campaign of computer hacking and disinformation aimed at steering election results. While the penalties are high-profile, and will draw Kremlin retaliation, their effects will be limited mostly to symbolism.

The sanctions allow the United States to diplomatically censure individuals and give the Department of the Treasury the ability to freeze their assets in the country. The sanctions were levied primarily against a handful of individuals and entities associated with Russia's disinformation campaign and computer intrusion activities in the United States — including the country's security agency, the Federal Security Service (FSB); the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), the intelligence arm of the military; and individuals associated with the computer activities of those agencies. In addition, the White House is ejecting 35 Russian operatives from the country and shutting down Russian-run compounds in Maryland and New York associated with intelligence gathering and computer hacking activities. 

There is no shortage of Russians associated with propaganda or hacking activities who could have served as targets for the retaliatory U.S. sanctions. The White House had already expanded sanctions on Dec. 20 against Russian President Vladimir Putin's so-called chef, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is accused of financially backing internet disinformation operations. But Moscow regards such sanctions on individuals as symbolic; the targeted Kremlin elites still often travel in defiance of sanction restrictions and disregard the financial limitations as well.

Symbolically, the FSB and GRU are the most significant entities the White House could have targeted without listing Putin himself. Russia's current political, social, business and security systems are all built on the backs of the country's security services, which maintain order throughout the country. Being named to the sanctions list will not directly hamper their activities, as the security services will likely employ other personalities and entities to skirt their restrictions.

There is little doubt that Russia will retaliate by ousting U.S. diplomats and workers from the country and sanctioning U.S. entities in a tit for tat. There is also a possibility that the Kremlin will take revenge on U.S. firms operating in the country. For example, U.S. social networking services such as Linkedin, Twitter and Facebook had already been under pressure to store data on their Russian users inside the country, a measure the companies have resisted. Now, Moscow has an incentive to make examples out of those companies, though it cannot afford to alienate all Western firms.

Beyond reprisals, Russia is shoring up for a real battle — though in the online realm — with the United States. As part of its pushback on Moscow, the Obama administration suggested that some of its punitive measures would be covert. As Russia vastly expanded its computer intelligence and disinformation campaigns around the world in recent years, it also bolstered its defenses against cyberwarfare and outside scrutiny of its networks.

Over the past three years, Russia has rolled back the interconnectivity of its operational and financial data networks — particularly with the West. In 2014, Russia began expanding its internal electronic data networks, particularly for crucial infrastructure and sectors, such as its intelligence services, military and energy arms. Earlier this year, the Kremlin passed a series of draconian laws that steeply limit the online connections and data exchange that Russian firms and internet users can have outside its borders. And all year, Russia has expanded FSB-run network defense centers that monitor strategic state firms around the clock. Russia also has reduced its reliance on Western technology to help it expand domestic networking capabilities, turning to the Chinese technology instead.

The Kremlin has already experienced an embarrassing hack against Vladislav Surkov, the presidential aide who designed the chaos and asymmetric warfare campaign in Eastern Ukraine. With Putin likely seeking a fourth presidential term in just 15 months, Moscow is increasingly concerned with Western reprisals. Today, Russian presidential internet advisor German Klimenko said his country could cut itself off entirely from global internet interconnectivity if it needed — a grandiose statement, though symbolic of Kremlin thinking.

As tensions between Moscow and Washington increase yet again, the other large looming question is whether the United States will maintain its robust pressure against Russia after the transition to President-elect Donald Trump's administration is complete in 2017. Trump blasted the Obama administration's retaliatory campaign, saying the United States should "get on with our lives," rather than impose sanctions. Trump and many of his Cabinet selections, including secretary of state-designate Rex Tillerson and Mike Flynn, his choice for national security advisor, have criticized, in general, the use of sanctions regimes against Russia, hinting at a change in strategy under the new administration.

Each campaign of sanctions against Russian targets was instituted by executive order, a decision that does not need to trudge through the Senate or House of Representatives. So Trump would not need the approval of lawmakers to rescind them once he takes office. However, sentiment against Russia runs fairly strong in Congress, leading to the question of whether the incoming president will risk alienating his party's leaders just to lift sanctions against Russia. But the issue could be measured in degrees.

Moscow is fairly unconcerned with most U.S. sanctions levied against individuals or firms, including those announced today. However, Moscow would like to see a specific set of sanctions — that target its energy and financial sectors — lifted or eased in the coming years. So Russia could acquiesce to having the more flashy sanctions over election hacking to remain in place if it could see a tempering of the more detrimental pressure points.

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