Cyber Proxies: A Central Tenet of Russia’s Hybrid Warfare

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Cyber operations remain at the forefront of confrontations between the West and Moscow as relations continue to deteriorate. Russia asserted itself in 2007 with “patriotic hackers” launching a volley of distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks on Estonian systems. Then in 2008, cyber attacks preceded the Russo-Georgian war, and again in 2014 before Russia’s annexation of Crimea and large swaths of eastern Ukraine.

Throughout this period, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Kremlin cohort have shown a capacity for hybrid warfare, a blend of conventional, irregular, and cyber warfare. The term describes a way of approaching geopolitical relations with subtle deception and information operations backed by military might. This is a modern twist on Soviet-era “active measures,” – intelligence agencies’ movement beyond mere collection into disinformation, subversion, and use of proxy organizations, political parties, and criminals to expand Russian influence. The term hybrid warfare can be so broadly applied that it almost becomes meaningless, but two of its central tenets – the use of proxies and cyber attacks for plausible deniability – are worth exploring in the Russian context.

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