President Obama’s public record on threats against a foreign actor is shaped largely by his red-line remark on Syria and his subsequent decision to back away from it. Despite that precedent the Kremlin would be wrong to assume Obama will not follow up his words with deeds this time around, argue cyber security scholars.
“I think the USA has to do something,” said Nigel Inkster, who worked for three decades for British intelligence and currently leads the future conflict and cyber security program at London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). “This kind of covert interference into an electoral process is not something that any credible US administration can allow to go unremarked and unresponded to.”
What’s more, he added, Obama arguably may not feel that he may bequeath his successor the easiest relationship with Moscow.
“I regard President Obama’s threat as serious and credible,” said Lucas Kello, senior lecturer in international relations and director of the Cyber Studies Program at Oxford University, via email. “US officials have repeatedly affirmed their nation’s right and intention to punish Russia for what they perceive to be a damaging and unprecedented campaign of political subversion during a presidential election.”
Moscow has denied it interfered in the US election process and President-elect Donald Trump also pushed back against the Obama administration’s claim of Russian hacking.
The Obama administration says Russia hacked the US election
While the US undoubtedly possesses the capabilities to launch a meaningful response, it faces at least two challenges should it decide to retaliate for the alleged Russian interference in the election process. The first, with the inauguration of Obama’s successor Donald Trump just weeks away, is time.
“The administration’s window of opportunity to mount a punitive response is rapidly closing,” said Kello. That’s why, he added, it is possible that the US may already have launched a response that is not immediately publicly observable. “Trump’s rejection of claims about Russian complicity only increases the pressures on Obama to respond before January 20.”
The second issue the Obama administration has to consider is that its possible retaliation effort corresponds with the alleged Russian interference.
“You have to be reasonably certain that it will have the desired impact and arguably that impact should meet the criteria of necessity and proportionality, but also done on the basis of some certainty that you enjoy escalation dominance,” said Inkster.
The perceived US-Russian cyber conflict could spill over into the real world
Put differently, since no real damage was done to ordinary US citizens by the alleged Russian attacks, this should be reflected in a possible US retaliation, said Inkster. “Taking out the Russian banking system or breaking their supply chains would not in my view be a proportionate response.”
One thing the US could do fairly easily and quickly is publish intelligence information it already holds about the financial behavior of Russia’s top leadership, including President Vladimir Putin, said Inkster. “There is a lot of dirt there that could go out.”
Such a step would be clearly intended to prove to a global audience that Obama is making good on his word. “Others may be concealed because their sole recipient is the Russian leadership,” said Kello. “Sometimes, the subtle jab is the most potent diplomatic device.”
Whatever steps Washington or Moscow may be mulling over in this matter, there clearly is a danger that what is currently viewed as a cyber-conflict could spill over into the real world, said Inkster.
“Nobody quite knows what would happen and there is a real concern that in practice nobody would come out on top and everyone would be losers. And there are serious reservations whether it is even possible to limit this kind of conflict to the cyber domain.”