Michael Morell and Mike Rogers argue that the United States has failed to deter Russia from its attacks on our electoral system because those attacks continue. They rely on a model of deterrence that assumes that what Russia is doing is in some way equivalent to physical war. They feel that the Barack Obama administration and Congress did not administer heavy enough penalties. They want “policies that prevent adversaries from achieving their objectives while imposing significant costs on their regimes.” but do not say what those policies would be.
Deterrence in cyberspace is not completely analogous to deterrence in physical war. Physical deterrence relies on observable, measurable things: the military and its equipment and positioning. Attribution in cyberspace is murkier than in the physical world, which weakens deterrence. Countermeasures are likely to rely on surprise, so they cannot be fully revealed to bolster deterrence. Imposing sanctions or other measures after the fact is possible and may deter future hostile action. An essential part of deterrence is a statement of unacceptable actions and the planned response to those actions.
Two recent long articles in the Washington Post on Russian interference in the 2016 US election list the countermeasures the Obama administration decided on. They included expulsions of 35 diplomats and the closure of two Russian compounds, economic sanctions against individuals, and planting of cyberweapons in Russia’s infrastructure that could be activated in the future. The last may or may not have been implemented; the articles are unclear.
Further, President Barack Obama, in a person-to-person conversation, told President Vladimir Putin to stop the interference. Diplomatic means were also used to convey this message.
Those actions contain the elements of deterrence: making clear that actions are unacceptable and responding with countermeasures. The Trump administration has diluted those elements.
When the Obama countermeasures were announced, Michael Flynn, who was influential in the Trump transition and who would become Trump’s National Security Advisor, contacted the Russians to tell them that those measures would be rolled back once Trump was in office, immediately undercutting deterrence. The sanctions and expulsions have not been rolled back, but Trump has been careful to avoid saying anything negative about Russia and has praised Russia and Putin. He continues to deny that there was any Russian involvement in the election and has attacked American law-enforcement and intelligence agencies for investigating that involvement.
Whatever the specifics of sanctions and expulsions, they must be backed up by a clear statement of intent. That statement can only come from the President. Trump has instead resisted and actively undermined the countermeasures.
Deterrence of Russian election interference requires a firm and unambiguous statement from the President that it is unacceptable and will be responded to. Then he would fully enforce the sanctions against Russia and likely retaliate in other ways, not all of them public.
Without that clarity, deterrence is weak or nonexistent.
Cross-posted at Nuclear Diner.