Putin Targets Twinsburg: How Russian hackers are infiltrating Ohio

Since 2019, there have been over 50 documented cases of hacking in Ohio spanning public safety, local government, medical facilities and schools. Examples include Cleveland Hopkins Airport, Ohio State Veterinary Center, City of Twinsburg, Westlake Police Department, and Aurora City Schools. Much of the hacking involves Ransomware and payment in Bitcoin, and most of it can be traced to Russia.

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On September 11, 2001, I was Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy in Majuro, Republic of the Marshall Islands. I got a call in the middle of the night to witness planes crashing into the World Trade Center. Following our Emergency Action Plan, we called together embassy staff, notified local authorities and contacted every American citizen present in the Marshall Islands. We learned that Al Qaida had plans for US facilities throughout the world and would target the most vulnerable ones. Even a tiny island nation thousands of miles away from the United States could be a target, plus a neighboring atoll hosted the Kwajalein US Army Base. We banned large gatherings, closed down all airports and the ports. Local authorities even arrested a visiting Italian citizen who did not seem to have any particular reason for being on the island. That was part of the worldwide response to the September 11 attacks.  

We need a similarly coordinated response to the increasingly invasive and disruptive Russia-sanctioned cyber attacks. Cyber attacks are now daily news. The June 5 edition of the Plain Dealer reported on the arrest of a Russian national for hacking into the Avon and Akron School Districts, forcing schools to close, and draining funds.

Since 2019, there have been over 50 documented cases of hacking in Ohio spanning public safety, local government, medical facilities and schools. Examples include Cleveland Hopkins Airport, Ohio State Veterinary Center, City of Twinsburg, Westlake Police Department, and Aurora City Schools. Much of the hacking involves Ransomware and payment in Bitcoin, and most of it can be traced to Russia.

Strangely, there has been no state-wide outcry from elected officials. Institutions and individuals are encouraged to purchase their own cyber-security software and take personal responsibility for not opening suspicious emails. There does not appear to be any kind of state-wide plan for addressing cyber-security, nor any discernible display of concern. Have no doubt this is cyber-warfare, wrought by Russia to destroy our democracy. Unfortunately for Ohioans, the ruling Republican Party, until recently led by the Timken family who made their fortune in Russia and have an office there, have decided Russia is not a threat. In 2018, I asked Congressman David Joyce about Russian hacking and was met with a bland shrug and response that “we do it too.” We do not. I asked Joyce again at a Chamber of Commerce event about election security in 2019, and he mumbled something about paper ballots, but clearly was not focused on the issue.

Valery Gerasimov.

Valery Gerasimov.

Hybrid warfare

In February 2013, Russian General (and current Chief of the General Staff) Valery Gerasimov published the article “The Value of Science Is in the Foresight,” in the weekly Russian trade paper Military-Industrial Kurier.” Gerasimov took tactics developed by the Soviets, blended them with strategic military thinking about total war, and laid out a new theory of hybrid warfare.  He wrote: “The very ‘rules of war’ have changed. The role of nonmilitary means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown, and, in many cases, they have exceeded the power of force of weapons in their effectiveness.”

Facebook and other social media are still reeling over the discoveries that many of its Facebook accounts can be traced back to Russian troll farms. These farms, owned by Putin’s chef and fellow oligarch Yevgeniy Prigozhin, were responsible for fear mongering on Facebook.  Although Facebook is becoming more proficient about scouting out the fake accounts, Russian trolls continue with their work.  During the 2020 elections troll farms specifically targeted the African American vote with posts discouraging them from voting.  More recently Russian troll farms have been credited with spreading anti-vaccinator conspiracy theories. 

Russians have been hacking our systems for some time, reaching their greatest success during the 2016 presidential campaign.  The Mueller Report fully documented the extent and methods of Russian hacking of our political parties and government institutions.  In June 2016, the US formally accused Russia of hacking.  U.S. intelligence knew that Russian hackers had penetrated the Democratic National Party and the Hillary Clinton campaign, and yet, during the campaign, candidate Trump famously urged Russians to do more.  As U.S. intelligence learned more about Russian hacking in 2016 it offered to help states maintain the security of their voting systems, an offer that Ohio then refused.  The DeWine Administration subsequently accepted federal assistance in 2020. 

The Russian hacking of the 2016 election was compared to Pearl Harbor and September 11, but our response was lukewarm. Intelligence officials regularly reported to Congress on the threat and efforts to thwart it, but the Trump Administration largely ignored these reports.  

Russian hybrid warfare is meeting more of a formidable foe in President Biden, whose administration is considering a number of sanctions to punish Putin for harboring hackers who have so successfully disrupted every sector of American life. On June 16, Biden forcefully told Putin to stop harboring Ransomware hackers and delivered a thinly veiled threat that the US had the ability to counter these efforts within Russia. General Gerasimov was in the room for these talks.  Analysts say we will see if Putin’s behavior changes within the next six months.  

Living conditions inside a Russian orphanage.

Living conditions inside a Russian orphanage.

Life in Russia

But was this summit worth it, didn’t it put Putin back at the world’s center stage, and somehow equate his prestige with President Biden’s?  Putin is content to keep his power through his boldness on the international stage, rather than doing much about Russia’s abysmal demographics and economy.  Anti-Americanism is Putin’s best campaign tool.  Russia’s domestic problems stunning:

  • Low birth rates and high death rates have significantly reduced Russia’s population

  • Russia is 155th in the world for life expectancy.

  • Russian children are orphaned, abandoned, or taken from non-viable parents at alarming rates.  By some estimates Americans adopted over 60,000 Russian children.  Adoptions ended with the Magnitsky Act in 2012 – a series of sanctions passed by the US Congress to protest the death in prison of Russian lawyer Sergey Magnitsky.-Three weeks after the act passed, Putin put a ban on adoptions. 

  • Russia contributes just 1.8% of the world’s GDP, and over 50% of this comes from extractive industries – oil, gas and uranium.

  • Fourteen percent of the population live in poverty.  

  • Human rights are routinely violated. Jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny was mysteriously poisoned in late July 2019 and again in August 2020. Putin’s most powerful rival, Boris Nemtsov was murdered in front of the Kremlin in 2015.  Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned by radiation in London in 2006.  More recently, Russian former national security operative Sergei Skripal and his daughter were murdered by a military-grade chemical agent in London in 2018.  Russia earlier, in 2004, poisoned pro-West Ukrainian Presidential Candidate Viktor Yushchenko with dioxin, horribly disfiguring him.

Given these seemingly unsolvable domestic challenges, Putin will continue to build his popularity on attacking the United States and promoting himself as a world leader.  He leads by disruption.

Alexei Navalny.

Alexei Navalny.

Combating cyber attacks

Though cyber-security is now a daily headline, combating it will require a united effort from the grassroots up. Personal responsibility — not opening suspicious emails or “liking” suspicious social media are first steps. But more must be demanded from all levels of government and private enterprise.

  • State and local governments should publicly condemn hacking and make public the steps they are taking to enhance cyber-security.  I live in Solon. I would like to know what my city officials are doing.

  • Hacked businesses should be transparent and register incidents with the police.  They should not pay ransom to have their systems unhacked.  

  • The federal government needs to hold Putin’s government responsible for harboring hackers, much as governments were held responsible for harboring terrorists after 9/11.

  • Internationally, hacking should be banned as a weapon of mass destruction, much as biological and chemical weapons have been banned.  

Cyber security is the new challenge of the 21st century. It is everyone’s responsibility.

Jennifer Brush is a 30 year U.S. diplomat with postings in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. She was the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) Ambassador to Moldova from 2012-2014. Ambassador Brush was born in Solon, Ohio and has retired there.

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