The Russians are coming! The Russians are … complicated!

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Did you know that Russia’s security services, particularly those related to hacking / information security, have been in the throes of vicious high-stakes infighting for years? Did you know that the perceived Russian doctrine which informed much Western analysis of Russian strategies never actually existed? Did you know that the Kremlin’s secrecy has built an entire cottage industry of largely-unfounded rumors and conspiracy theories based on the few tantalizing details which do leak?

OK, you probably knew that last part. Everyone, or at least everyone who calls a social-media stranger with whom they disagree a “Russian bot,” is a Russian conspiracy theorist nowadays. And of course the evidence of widespread malevolent Russian activity, ranging from assassinations to hacking to social-media bombing, is copious.

But exactly which Russian organizations are doing what, and why — that’s a lot harder to establish. I’m reminded of old Cold War spy novels in which Kremlinologists analyzed the few public appearances of Politburo members, wrongfully reading great significance into who stood where and when, because they had little else to go on. Just like those bad old days, our instinct nowadays is to treat “Russia” as a single, well-oiled, tightly-orchestrated malignant machine.

Of course it’s nothing of the sort. Instead it is a complex, seething, tiered morass of many figures and institutions, often incentivized against one another, in a time of profound and rapid change. Today I attended a Black Hat talk by Kimberley Zenz, who opened with a plea for nuanced consideration of Russia and Russian activities. She’s right, of course, but sadly the Internet tends to be where nuance goes to die.

This nuance, though, is especially fascinating, the stuff of spy thrillers. In 2017 a slew of Russian intelligence officials and hackers — along with, inexplicably, Kaspersky Lab’s Head of Investigations — were suddenly arrested. One was “apparently forcibly removed from a meeting with fellow FSB officers — escorted out with a bag over his head” according to Stratfor. A case was eventually made against them for “high treason in favor of the United States.”

Four individuals were this year sentenced to up to 22 years in prison. (They are appealing.) Andrei Gerasimov, the longtime director of Russia’s Information Security Center, “a shadowy unit … thought to be Russia’s largest inspectorate when it comes to domestic and foreign cyber capabilities, including hacking,” resigned a week after this case emerged.

Stratfor again: ‘Because the charges are treason, the case is considered “classified” by the state, meaning no official explanation or evidence will be released.’ From this fog of secrecy, half a dozen different rumors and theories have emanated. Are the charges entirely trumped-up to eliminate rivals? Did someone leak to the US to attack their rivals, only to see this backfire spectacularly? Did the FSB turn a hacking group which then discovered something they really shouldn’t have about a powerful oligarch? Who can say?

Of course another conspiracy theory is the nuance-free “well-oiled malignant machine” one, in which this case is just an instance of said machine expelling a bit of grit from its innards. It’s remarkable how common this “monolithic Russian single-voiced hive-mind” analysis has become. Here’s Politico, for instance, after the above scandal broke: “Lately, Russia appears to be coming at the United States from all kinds of contradictory angles … Confused? Only if you don’t understand the Gerasimov Doctrine.”

That doctrine — named after General Valery Gerasimov, please note, not repeat not the now-disgraced former-FSB-director Andrei Gerasimov mentioned above — is used there to explain away all Russian activity, even that which appears self-contradictory, as a deliberately bewildering diversity of tactics used to “achieve an environment of permanent unrest and conflict within an enemy state.” It was cited yesterday in another Black Hat talk, which I was so unimpressed by I’ll diplomatically refrain from discussing further. It is consistently cited by Russian policy analysts to this day.

But the problem with the Gerasimov Doctrine as a cornerstone of modern Kremlinology is that — according to the very person who coined the term! — it never actually existed. (Ironically it stems from a conspiracy theory on General Gerasimov’s part: that the CIA instigated the Arab Spring.) Instead, rather than a campaign informed by a unifying doctrine, Russian activity is

largely opportunistic, fragmented, even sometimes contradictory. Some major operations are coordinated, largely through the presidential administration, but most are not. Rather, operations are conceived and generally carried out by a bewildering array of “political entrepreneurs” hoping that their success will win them the Kremlin’s favor

That sounds like an awfully important distinction to make, and it leads to the most interesting thing (to me) about Ms. Zenz’s talk; her mention that “the Russian government considers Russian cybercriminals to be a strategic asset,” and that one side effect of this treason case is that it has greatly chilled information sharing and cooperation between Russia and the West regarding online threats.

Does this strategic status in turn mean that Russian hackers are likely to be government operatives, and/or Russian infosec companies in bed with their government? I am no Kremlinologist, but it seems to me more that the very question is wrong and should be unasked. Rather, the relatively sharp differences between “private sector,” “government,” and “criminal,” defined in nations with a strong rule of law, don’t really exist in a nation like modern Russia where those distinctions can, and often do, blur together.