PoliticsThe Macroscope

Unmasking Russian shadow power

What happened?

The Dutch government recently revealed that four members of the Russian secret services (GRU) were caught in the Netherlands last spring because of their connection to the cyber espionage group Fancy Bear. Investigators believe that the group attempted to hack the Organization for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), first from Russia, and later from the Netherlands, where its headquarters are located. The Russians were interested in the OPCW because it is researching two highly controversial cases: the (failed) poisoning of double agent Sergej Skripal in Salisbury, as well as the poison gas used in Syria.

What does this mean?

The Russian espionage group was caught while preparing a hack on the OPCW. Interestingly, the team of four was preparing the hack in a rather amateurish (here is a reconstruction by the Guardian): they travelled with diplomatic passports, hired a car, worked with a simple Wi-Fi network, used a laptop with information related to previous spying activities, carried receipts of taxi usage in Russia and smartphones with photos of the OPCW headquarters, etc. The Russians were put on an airplane back to Russia and were obliged to leave this material evidence behind.

What’s next?

Russia’s tactics reveal fundamental differences between “shadow power” strategies of major powers. Similar to destabilizing the U.S. elections, Russia’s shadow power strategy is characterized by information warfare (i.e. manipulating media narratives, creating division among its adversaries). In contrast, China’s shadow power strategy is focused on retaining a more lasting degree of influence within the borders of its adversaries (e.g. Australia, Europe). In the western world, non-government organizations (NGOs) have historically been used to project shadow power. In a world of increased shadow power projection, it is more likely that countries will lash back against foreign influence – from political lobbying and foreign ownership of companies to academic influence and think-tanks.