Should the U.S. hack Russia’s elections?

On a panel in Washington, former Pentagon Chief of Staff Eric Rosenbach posed an interesting question: Should the United States hack Russia’s upcoming presidential elections?

Hacking Russia’s elections would likely feel satisfying to many Americans, but is this sort of revenge in the national interest? Let’s evaluate some of the pros and cons.

Pros

  • Hacking Russia’s elections could strengthen U.S. cyber deterrence because it would send a strong signal to the Kremlin that Russia crossed a red line, and the United States will not tolerate attacks against its electoral system. Our adversaries know we have the capabilities—they’re just unsure that we have the willpower. While President Obama responded to Russian interference primarily through sanctions and the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats, his response was limited and came off as weak.
  • It would also send a powerful message to other adversaries in cyberspace, particularly China, North Korea and Iran. They’d grow more inclined to think twice about launching a large-scale cyberattack against the United States.
  • President Trump has both confirmed and denied Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, while National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster says the evidence is “now really incontrovertible.” What the Trump Administration desperately needs is something to convince the American people that it takes these matters seriously and there was no collusion. An offensive cyberattack against Russia’s electoral system, which would require presidential approval, could offset some of the negative press coverage and weaken the collusion narrative.

Cons

  • The cyberattack would have virtually no influence on the outcome of the elections. These are not free elections, so Putin is going to win no matter what.
  • Russian military doctrine is infamous for its strategy of “escalate to deescalate.” It’s unclear how the Russians would respond, and the chance for miscalculation would be high.
  • It also signals to some that the United States is not true to its principles and values, as it meddles with democratic elections in other countries. In fact, Putin already claims the U.S. interfered in Russia’s elections in 2000 and 2012. This is not a narrative the U.S. would want to perpetuate.
  • If President Trump still wants to strengthen ties with Russia, which are already pretty poor, this would likely throw a wrench in his plans.

Weighing the pros and cons, I think it would be wise to leave Russia’s March 2018 elections alone. While one could argue that the likelihood of Russian escalation is remote, particularly because they attacked us first and the attack would have no real effect on their election results, it’s not worth taking the chance. Instead of launching an ineffective cyberattack for the sake of attacking, let’s wait for an opportunity that really counts. After all, a cyberattack that can actually achieve its desired effect would accomplish far more for deterrence than a cyberattack that cannot.

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