One day after a Pew poll showed only 38 percent of Germans view Russia as a threat to its neighbors (other than Ukraine), news has broken that Russia hacked the Bundestag. The Times (of London) reports:
Russian hackers were accused yesterday of being behind a damaging cyberattack on the German parliament that could require a complete overhaul of computer equipment, costing millions of euros.
The invasion of the main Bundestag system was spotted a month ago but investigators have now admitted that the trojan program has not been closed down properly and may still be stealing private data.
A trail appears to lead to an “eastern intelligence community”, Der Spiegel magazine reported yesterday, leading experts to suggest that the SVR, the Russian foreign intelligence service, was behind the attack.
Many German commentators (and a few outside Germany) seem to be tempted to draw a parallel to the NSA phone tapping allegations revealed by Edward Snowden. But the two cases are not alike. The latter was an embarrassing revelation of something (spying) that all allies do to one another but, like a mistress in a French marriage, would prefer not to talk about.
Putin’s online endeavors represent something entirely, and not only because spying among enemies is qualitatively different than among allies. As a New York Times Magazine piece by Adrian Chen vividly illustrated last week, Russia’s cyber capabilities are being increasingly harnessed to spread confusion, doubt, and even panic (he describes a faked oil refinery explosion in Louisiana) among Russia’s enemies. They are, in other words, as much about expanding the reach of hybrid warfare as about traditional intelligence gathering.
And Putin often prefers to develop capabilities and then sit on them, waiting for the opportune moment. Imagine, for instance, the potential for paralysis in the opening hours of an incursion by “little green men” (unmarked Russian special ops troops) into the Baltic states if Russian intelligence services were able to mess with the Bundestag’s computer systems or French TV networks (one of which the article reports was also hacked).
European center-left intellectuals during the Cold War would often frame things as a Russian-American fight in which they were caught in the middle. (Some would take this argument one step further and recommend a shift toward neutrality.) Insofar as that was ever true (hint: not very), it’s even less so now. The Germans at this juncture are the undisputed leaders of their continent and its order, which Russia in turn is set on disrupting— if not overturning. A retiring America is, at least for the time being, less involved as an ally and less certain as a deterrent than many would like.
And so right now for the Germans, to paraphrase Trotsky, you may not be interested in rivalry with Russia, but Russia is interested in rivalry with you.