The CSS Blog

Whodunnit? Russia and Coercion through Cyberspace

Blue Circuit

Courtesy of Yusuke Umezawa / Flickr

This article was originally published by War on the Rocks on 19 October 2016.

Late in May 2014, a group calling itself CyberBerkut leaked a map of the Ukrainian Dnipropetrovsk Oblast administration’s IT resources, information on the Central Election Commission of Ukraine’s servers, and the correspondence of its staff. In the following days, which included the country’s presidential election, CyberBerkut claimed they had again compromised the election commission’s servers, leaked more confidential information, conducted a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack the commission’s website (which instructed potential voters how and where to vote), and blocked the phones of election organizers. The group also released documents implying that the recently appointed governor of the Dnipropetrovsk Oblast, Igor Kolomoisky, was complicit in pro-European Ukrainian plans to promote the “correct” candidate for president of Ukraine.

Despite the best effort of the Russian group behind CyberBerkut, the center-right, pro-European Petro Poroshenko won the Ukrainian presidency. But CyberBerkut wasn’t finished. Almost exactly five months later, the group used similar tactics in the days preceding the Ukrainian parliamentary elections. The results were largely the same: Pro-European candidates won the majority of seats. An uninitiated observer might be keen to discard these events as failed electioneering. After all, Moscow did not succeed in getting its men elected. But to label the operation a failure is to assume that the primary goal was to get pro-Russia officials elected. Over the course of the past four months, we have seen similar operations unfold in the United States, and — as was the case in Ukraine — there are reasons to believe that swaying the election is not the primary objective. Just as in the case of the CyberBerkut incidents, among the key observers of these operations in the United States have been cyber-security firms like FireEye. The manager of their information operations analysis team recently shared some of their findings with me, which informs the analysis below.

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Four Trends That Could Put the Democratic Peace at Risk

US Flag

Courtesy AK Rockefeller/Flickr

This article was originally published by Political Violence @ a Glance on 14 October 2016.

Political scientists generally agree that democracies have a foreign policy advantage, particularly when it comes to conflict. Democracies – at least when compared to autocracies – make more credible threats, fight less, and win more.

There’s a lot more debate about why this might be the case, but in research with Matt Baum I argue that it comes down to institutional constraints. Free and fair elections are fine and well, but unless political opposition and an informed public are up to the task of forcing leaders to be responsive, the democratic advantage fades away. Driving the point home, some autocracies are so institutionalized that they effectively constrain leaders and, when they do, those countries look more like democracies in their conflict behavior and outcomes.

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Rough Patches on the Silk Road? The Geopolitics of the Belt and Road Initiative


Courtesy Victoria Pickering/Flickr

This article was published by Political Violence @ a Glance in October 2016. The post draws on the author’s chapter in a recently released Peterson Institute for International Economics Briefing volume.

China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – a plan to build a vast network of roads, rail lines, new ports, and other infrastructure improvements a in more than 60 countries, at a cost of $4 trillion – is an economic policy designed to radically expand trade and investment in Asia and around the Indian Ocean. Critically, however, it is also a security initiative with the aim of facilitating economic integration and promoting longer-run peace in the region.

The economic benefits are likely to be large, but there may be rough patches along the new Silk Road. While the proposed investments are precisely the types of trade-enhancing projects development economists have long called for, the geopolitical implications of BRI are complicated. From the restive western Chinese province of Xianjing to Jammu-Kashmir, the Myanmar-Chinese border, and the Indian Ocean, BRI-related initiatives target or traverse some of the world’s most contested territories. Major power development programs abroad – such as the US Marshall Plan and Alliance for Progress – have always been motivated by a mixture of economic and security concerns. Indeed, BRI is intended in part to address security fears emanating from these regions by improving economic prospects.

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The World Has Passed the Old Grand Strategies By


Courtesy Thomas Hawk/Flickr

This article was originally published by War on the Rocks on 5 October 2016.

It’s grand strategy season in Washington, and with good reason. From War on the Rocks to Foreign Affairs to a recent spate of books, there has been a renewed argument over primacy, offshore balancing, and other contenders for the grand strategy crown. The debate is timely: The international order is in the midst of an epochal shift and a new administration will have to rethink basic organizing concepts for America’s role in the world.

Unfortunately, most of the debate has already begun to ring hollow. The default grand strategy concepts no longer capture the choices that America faces. The most important truth about grand strategy today is that the United States badly needs new options to choose from. The classic stand-off is between advocates of primacy or preeminence on the one hand, and restraint or offshore balancing on the other. There are dramatically different versions of each, and the terms can mislead as easily as they can inform. As Stephen Brooks, John Ikenberry, and William Wohlforth have rightly argued, for example, “primacy” can sometimes imply a straw man vision of hegemonic dominance that nobody really advocates.

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European Strategy in Times of Geopolitical Interdependence

The European Flag


This article was originally published by the Elcano Royal Institute on 20 September 2016.

Russian revisionism represents a direct threat to many eastern and central European countries. In turn, the ripple effects of instability in Syria, Iraq or Libya continue to be felt throughout Europe, not only through successive waves of refugees and migrants, but also through terrorism and mounting insecurity.

Following the publication of the EU’s Global Strategy on Foreign and Security Policy (EUGS) in June 2016, and NATO’s July summit in Warsaw, most discussions on European strategy appear to be revolving around the following questions: (A) how to bring security to Europe’s immediate neighbourhood and (B) how to balance attention and resources between Eastern Europe, North Africa/Sahel, and the Levant. When it comes to strategy, prioritization is essential. And it does make sense for Europeans to put their own neighbourhood first, given the proliferation of crises and instability along the continent’s eastern and southern peripheries. However, a world that is increasingly characterized by the rise of Asia and the multiplication of centres of economic activity is one that calls for a truly global approach to foreign and security policy.

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