Russia‘s strategic culture drives its foreign hacking

Monica Kello explores the cultural forces behind Russia’s foreign cyber operations
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The United Kingdom’s National Crime Agency on December 7 uncovered a years-long cyber campaign by Centre 18 of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) to influence democratic processes through ‘hack and leak’ operations. In response, the UK government sanctioned two Russians involved in the operations and summoned the Russian ambassador to the foreign office.

Russia’s reaction was predictable: its foreign ministry released a statement accusing the United Kingdom of making “groundless accusations based on myths”. The UK government had fallen back a familiar playbook: a combination of public shaming and economic penalties targeting individual operatives. Although such measures demonstrate the United Kingdom’s impressive intelligence capabilities, they are highly unlikely to influence the Russian decision-making calculus.

Strategic culture

Russian foreign hacking is propelled by the nation’s strategic culture – collectively held ideas about national security and geopolitical competition that, like culture more broadly, “do not vary in the face of environmental or structural changes” and which are “particular to individual states”. These ideas are generally derived from a nation’s historical experiences over a long period (often centuries or even millennia). To understand Russia’s hacking operations, it helps to examine the cultural forces fuelling them on three levels: the perception of an external existential threat, a sense of national paranoia, and a cult of assertive action.

Existential threat

The notion that Russia is besieged by existential foes dominates the country’s perception of the external security environment. Centuries of wars, difficulties in defending Russia’s borders, and extreme climatic conditions produced what some have referred to as a “militarization of the [Russian] consciousness”. Russian leaders even now often evoke the Soviet Union’s heroic victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two – which Russians refer to as the “Great Patriotic War” – to stir feelings of encirclement. Recent poll data indicates that the Russian public is particularly fearful of NATO (and that NATO should fear Russia).

National paranoia

The belief that Russia is besieged by external enemies and has historically been victimised creates a sense of national paranoia and a psyche of insecurity, both of which are reinforced by the regime to ensure its survival. President Vladimir Putin is not only concerned about losing influence over neighbouring buffer states (such as Ukraine or Belarus) but also about a Western-instigated revolution at home. Zvezda, a media network run by the Russian Ministry of Defence, often reminds Russians that their grandfathers, whose blood “today beats in our veins,” fought fearlessly over centuries to defend the motherland’s right to exist from countless foreigners who “came to us with weapons in their hands”. Cyber operations, like all other Russian aggressions, are seen as serving a defensive function against the enemy’s relentless encroachment.

Intrinsic to this paranoia is the notion of Russian exceptionalism, with roots in the religious heritage of Holy Rus’ (Holy Russia) and Moscow as the ‘Third Rome’. Russia perceives itself as a “shield to defend civilization”. An article by Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, expounded the country’s “special role in European and global history”.

Belief in the existence of a russkiy mir (‘Russian world’) feeds an innate suspicion of the West and its ‘rotten‘ value system. For ‘besieged Russia’, protecting the russkiy mir is an existential mission. This messianic fervour is further reinforced by the bitterness generated by the collapse of the Soviet Union and Russia’s consequent loss of great power status, which over time has produced a “collective trauma”.

Cult of assertive action

The besieged mentality, national paranoia, and belief in exceptionalism contribute to a Russian security culture that values creative thinking, an eagerness to experiment, and a constant drive to exploit opponents’ weaknesses. Military romanticism also feeds into a societal cult of assertive action (although that is always justified as serving defensive purposes). In Russia, action is always preferable to inaction. Or in the words of a Baltic counterintelligence officer, Russia is a country “whose citizenry primarily adheres to a code of force”.

Unanticipated diplomatic fallout from risk-taking is par for the course. Putin himself has referred to the well-known Russian phrase ‘He who doesn’t take risks, never drinks champagne’. Operations need not follow a coherent logic – their seeming irrationality is intentional and serves to sow confusion. Indeed, “chaos is a trait of Russian culture”, according to Alexander Toots, the deputy head of the Estonian domestic intelligence service.

Interference in democracies

This strategic culture orients Russian interference in foreign democracies. Operatives are engaged in a perpetual campaign of subversion. They search for any creative opportunity to undermine their enemies from within and thereby strengthen Russia. The potential international outrage and repercussions that their actions may provoke are, for the most part, disregarded.

The country’s cultural paranoia means that it continually feels assaulted by the West imposing an alternative liberal ideology on its people and making Russia look weak. One of the regime’s biggest fears is information distribution and, concretely, true information that might destabilise the political order at home, especially amidst a decades-long dire economic situation. In response, it relishes psychological cyber operations and political warfare against its adversaries – manipulating people’s beliefs and their confidence in domestic authorities.

Rivalry with the United Kingdom

The United Kingdom is an especially attractive target for this kind of subversion.

Firstly, the British government’s reluctance to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 Brexit referendum may have inadvertently furthered Russia’s objectives and encouraged further interference. Russian military expert Keir Giles astutely observed that “confidence in democracy depends on confidence that it has not been compromised”.

Secondly, there is a long history of intelligence rivalry between the United Kingdom and Russia – think of how British intelligence agencies exposed one of the Soviet Union’s most valuable spies, Klaus Fuchs, and how the KGB ran Kim Philby successfully for years.

Thirdly, the United Kingdom has been at the forefront of the European response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. For example, it supplied Ukraine with depleted uranium tank shells, which particularly provoked Putin’s ire.

We should not underestimate the cumulative cognitive effects of Russia’s cyber operations. Continuous hacking undermines the resilience of our societies and trust in our political leaders and democratic systems. As part of a new national security bill, the United Kingdom has criminalised sabotage via cyber operations. In 2024 it is also bringing into force new legislation called the ‘Foreign Influence Registration Scheme, a system to register political influence activities in the United Kingdom at the direction of a foreign power.

These are long overdue steps in the right direction, but they won’t discourage Russian cyber operations for the cultural reasons I discussed. The British government itself admitted that Moscow will continue to seek to meddle in its domestic politics using cyber means.

How should the UK government respond? To begin with, it should conduct a transparent probe into the consequences of Russian hacks and leaks to substantiate Foreign Secretary David Cameron’s claim that Russian interference had “failed” and strengthen trust in democratic institutions against Russian campaigns. But more importantly, Russian cultural paranoia can be used against it to frustrate future operations.

 Reverse-engineering cultural paranoia

Mistrust is prevalent within Russian intelligence agencies, which have been beset by failures and humiliation in Ukraine, culminating in mass dismissals. We also know that there is a general unwillingness among intelligence officials to feed realistic assessments up the chain of command, preferring instead to misrepresent the agencies’ achievements to placate superiors.

Among Russian society more broadly, there has been a rise in denunciations among ordinary citizens reminiscent of the Soviet era. The regime has also introduced legislation encouraging informing – a clear sign that it fears internal dissent and its own weakness.

The UK National Cyber Force’s “doctrine of cognitive effect” can capitalise on those trends – the paranoia and its associated tendencies. It might involve, for example, introducing what Richard Harknett and Emily Goldman have called “friction” into the adversary’s operating environment by undermining confidence in systems, technology, and data. It might also include more human-oriented operations which exploit the mistrust that already plagues the FSB by targeting key individual malware developers. It could also seek to undermine the relationships with criminal actors, companies, and other collaborators that the intelligence agencies lean on to conduct sophisticated campaigns.

Keeping Russian operators busy by exploiting their cultural proclivities is likely to be a more effective strategy to address Russian cyber activity than public shaming or targeted sanctions.