Russia: Deception and Deniability

By Rob Dannenberg

Rob Dannenberg served as chief of operations for CIA's Counterterrorism Center, chief of the Central Eurasia Division and chief of the Information Operations Center before retiring from the Agency.  He served as managing director and head of the Office of Global Security for Goldman Sachs, and as director of International Security Affairs at BP.  He is now an independent consultant on geopolitical and security risk.

In July, Rob Dannenberg, the former head of security at Goldman Sachs and a 24-year veteran of the CIA, discussed Russia’s cyber strategy of information warfare and the role of proxies in undermining attribution efforts, consequentially stemming victims’ political will to respond to provocations. Moving from the disruptive attack on the Ukrainian power grid all the way up to the most recent hack-and-leak attack on the Democratic National Committee, Dannenberg highlights the role of Russian sponsorship of proxy groups to maintain plausible deniability while furthering its policies in cyberspace.

Early in the afternoon of 23 December, hundreds of thousands of people in western Ukraine suddenly lost power as several Ukrainian power companies were the victims of a cyber attack allegedly perpetrated by a pro-Russian hacktivist group called Sandworm Team.  This was the first confirmed cyber attack to successfully take down a major power grid.  In addition to the inconvenience caused by loss of power in the middle of winter, the attack undermined confidence in the government of Ukrainian President Pyotr Poroshenko thus furthering a geopolitical goal of Russia. 

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