Russian Cyber Operations: Closing the Gap on U.S. Conventional Supremacy

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By: Madison Creery, Columnist

Last year the U.S. National Defense Strategy highlighted Russia as a central challenge to U.S. national security.[i] Yet, during that same year headlines across the globe predicted Russia’s military modernization program and international influence would soon decline.[ii] A May 2018 announcement claimed that Russia’s 2017 defense budget fell 20%, supposedly the first reduction in Russian military expenditures since 1998.[iii] Experts such as Mark Galeotti and Stephen Covington have argued that Russia’s military aspirations have long outpaced its economic means if the state cares at all for long-term economic prosperity.[iv] A decline in Russian military influence would be the next logical step.

However, Russia is far from being discounted as a military power.[v] Most concerning to the U.S. is how Russia has remained on center stage with a relatively small military budget that continues to decrease.[vi] To accommodate both its economic reality and its own strategic understanding of warfare, Moscow has transformed its limited means to accomplish ambitious political objectives. More specifically, it has recognized that, to compete with the United States, the Russian military must develop niche capabilities that do not require massive investment in conventional forces, thereby creating new battlefields in the realm of information and cyber.

A Matter of Necessity: The Russian Defense Budget

The collapse of Russia’s military modernization program remains unlikely in the near term, despite Russia’s poor economic outlook.[vii] Spending trends indicate that its defense budget has stabilized after years of rapid growth, and is just recently on the decline.[viii] In the mid-2010’s, Russia saw a sizable increase in its defense spending, with roughly $306 billion being set aside for its New State Armament Program meant for 2011 to 2020. The world saw Russia allocate a large portion of its budget to procurement (mostly legacy systems) as a way to achieve 70% modernization in its Armed Forces’ weaponry by 2020.[ix]

Despite Russia’s modernization plans, there has been a tendency in the West to overstate the scale of this program, as well as Russia’s relative standing as a global military power.[x] Financial limitations remain a serious obstacle to the longer-term goals of Russia’s ambitions to create a truly competitive conventional force.[xi] Foremost, there have been strains on Russia’s economy in order to maintain such a demanding procurement program. Even during periods of economic hardship, Russia’s military expenditures never slipped below 3% of its GDP.[xii] This means that Russia has been more willing than most to accept a higher defense burden, but at the expense of other areas of public spending.[xiii] Further, Russia only has a military budget about a 10th the size of the United States.[xiv] Given this reality, it is unlikely that Russia will be able to accomplish strategic objectives through direct military confrontations with the U.S. However, Russia is not seeking to “win” in the traditional sense of defeating an enemy’s army.[xv] Instead, the Russian military understands that victory can occur without even engaging the enemy by using cyber and information means.

A Matter of Principle: Creating New Battlefields

One reason the Soviet Union collapsed was due to the economic strains from the Cold War arms race.[xvi] Today could see much of the same in Russia’s pursuit of military modernization…unless it can successfully change the theater of operations. Although it is still of vital importance to the Russian military to maintain sufficient land-based conventional forces, fielding an army that would challenge the U.S. in a head-on fight is not a feat it can accomplish with its current budget.[xvii] When faced with such conditions, Russia has begun focusing on a range of niche capabilities, predominantly regarding the strategic use of information and cyber warfare.[xviii]

Given the realities Russia faces, it is becoming more pragmatic to use cyber means to achieve “wins” on the information battlespace. To accomplish this, Russia engages in constant cyber attacks on an adversary’s communication nodes, as well as operations that manipulate information through the use of propaganda and disinformation campaigns.[xix] Russian forces relied heavily on these means to enable military operations in Georgia and Ukraine.[xx] During both operations, Russia used cyberattacks to shut down key telecommunications infrastructure and disable major websites before deploying Russian forces. The targeted cyber-attacks allowed Russia to briefly gain command of the information space, permitting it to shape the narrative of events.[xxi]

In essence, Russia’s use of information and cyber tactics allow it to create spatial distance and separation from a capable adversary, such as the U.S., denying access to the information battlespace and restricting freedom of maneuver.[xxii] Information warfare is all about achieving goals that used to require significant conventional military force. The traditional military role is not removed from the equation, but it takes on a lesser role relative to unconventional means. The Russian armed forces, for its part, are equipped to take quick advantage of the opportunities both cyber-attacks and information campaigns create. This approach can help neutralize, or at least offset, an enemy’s military superiority by producing possibilities for asymmetric operations that reduce the fighting potential of an adversary through disruption attacks and by the simple creation of chaos and distrust.[xxiii] Through these measures, Russia can avoid escalation into a full blown, direct, state-to-state conflict with near-rivals while still delivering costly damage.[xxiv] Consider the Russo-Georgian War. The ability of Russia to keep Georgia under a cyber siege that largely disconnected it not only from its citizens, but from the rest of the world throughout a strategically successful five-day war, was no small feat.

Current Russian investment in information warfare is difficult to quantify due to the abstract nature of cyber and information operations. There are no tanks or airplanes to purchase, as states instead rely upon “volunteers” and co-opted cyber forces.[xxv] However, there are other indications of Russia’s investment in this field. Presently, there has been great speculation to Russia’s possible use of “Information Troops.” As early as 2013, several retired officers of the Russian military acknowledged that Russia was in the process of creating specialized military cyber units.[xxvi] Further, in 2016, General Gerasimov, Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces, announced that “information operations troops” were involved for the first-time in the Kavkaz-2016 strategic command staff exercise.[xxvii] These both are possible signs that Russia is moving away from reliance on volunteers, and is instead investing in its own cyber and information capabilities within the military.

When faced with its present fiscal reality, Russia has found an approach to warfare that may finally pose a real challenge to the West. Instead of trying to win with superior numbers in conventional forces, Russia is seeking to undermine an enemy from within by controlling and manipulating both access to, and the content of, information.[xxviii] No matter the difficulties the Russian defense budget may face in the future, Russia has recognized that it must develop capabilities that do not result in massive investment in conventional forces if it is to take on a rival such as the United States. And information and cyber warfare goes to the heart of how wars are won – either destroy the enemy or render the enemy unable to fight.[xxix]


[i] “Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America: Sharpening the American Military’s Competitive Edge,” 2018, The Department of Defense,, 2.

[ii] Ivana Kottasova, 2018, “Russian Military Spending Drops for First Time in 20 Years,” CNN Money, May 2018,; Rick Noack, 2018, “Even as Fear of Russia is Rising, it’s Military Spending is Actually Decreasing,” The Washington Post, May 2018,

[iii] “Global Military Spending Remains High at $1.7 Trillion,” SIPRI, May 2018,

[iv] Mark Galeotti, 2017, “The Truth about Russia’s Defense Budget,” European Council on Foreign Relations, March 2017,; Stephen R. Covington, 2016, “The Culture of Strategic Thought Behind Russia’s Modern Approaches to Warfare,” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, October 2016,, 37.

[v] “Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy,” 2018, 2.

[vi] Susanne Oxenstierna, 2016, “Russian Expenditure” in “Russian Military Capability in a Ten-Year Perspective – 2016,” ed. Gudrun Persson, Swedish Defense Research Agency (FOI), December 2016, 142.

[vii] Galeotti, “The Truth About Russia’s Defense Budget,” 2017

[viii] Chapter Five: Russia and Eurasia, In The Military Balance, 118:1, DOI:10.1080/04597222.2018.1416981, 176.

[ix] Oxenstierna, 2016, 142; Bettina Renz, Russia’s Military Revival, Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2018, 81.

[x] Bettina Renz, Russia’s Military Revival, Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2018, 67.

[xi] Ibid, 72.

[xii] Connolly and Boulegue, “Russia’s New State Armament Programme,” 12.

[xiii] Oxenstierna, 2016, 142.

[xiv] Thomas Grove, 2019, “The New Iron Curtain: Russian Missile Defense Challenges U.S. Air Power,” The Wall Street Journal, January 2019,

[xv] Brandon Valeriano, Benjamin Jensen, and Ryan C. Maness, Cyber Strategy: The Evolving Character of Power and Coercion (New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 2018), 111.

[xvi] Michael Peck, 2018, “Why Russia Won’t Go Bankrupt Paying for Its Military Buildup,” The National Interest, August 2018,

[xvii] Aleksandr V. Rogovoy and Keir Giles, 2015, “A Russian View on Landpower,” Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, April 2015, 3.

[xviii] Keir Giles, 2017, “Assessing Russia’s Reorganized and Rearmed Military,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, May 2017,

[xix] Valeriano, Jensen, and Maness, “Cyber Strategy,” 131.

[xx] Valeriano, Jensen, and Maness, “Cyber Strategy,” 119.

[xxi] Azhar Unwala and Shaheen Ghori, “Brandishing the Cybered Bear: Information War and the Russia-Ukraine Conflict,” Military Cyber Affairs 1, no. 1 (2015).

[xxii] Unwala and Ghori, “Brandishing the Cybered Bear,” 2015.

[xxiii] Diego A. Palmer Ruiz, “Back to the Future? Russia’s Hybrid Warfare, Revolutions in Military Affairs, and Cold War Comparisons.” Research Division, NATO Defense College (120), October 2015,, 6.

[xxiv] Ibid, 41.

[xxv] Keir Giles, 2011, “Information Troops – A Russian Cyber Command?” In Cyber Conflict (ICC), 2011 3rd International Conference on, pp. 45-60, IEEE.

[xxvi] V.I. Kuznetsov, Y.Y. Donskov, and A.S. Korobeinikov, 2013, “On the Relation Between ‘Electronic Warfare’ and ‘Information Warfare’,” Voennaia mysl, (3)14-20.

[xxvii] “Russia Military Power: Building a Military to Support Great Power Aspirations,” Defense Intelligence Agency, 2017,, 38.

[xxviii] Amos C. Fox and Andrew J. Rossow, “Assessing Russian Hybrid Warfare: A Successful Tool for Limited War,” Small Wars Journal, August 8, 2016.

[xxix] Giles, 2017, “Assessing Russia’s Reorganized and Rearmed Military.”

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