In Other News: Russian Cyberattacks, Iran Nuclear Ambitions & More – September 11, 2020

September 11, 2020

Microsoft warned yesterday in a report that the Russian unit responsible for the hack of the Democratic National Committee in 2016, Fancy Bear, is engaging in accelerated and increasingly sophisticated cyberattacks on both Democratic and Republican campaign officials, consultants, and think tanks in the lead-up to the 2020 election. Microsoft also warned that Chinese hackers are actively targeting Biden campaign staff and high-profile members of the US policy and national security communities, and that Iranian hackers have targeted the Trump campaign, but with limited success. Separately, the US announced yesterday that it had designated four Kremlin-linked individuals – including Ukrainian parliamentarian Andrii Derkach – for new sanctions related to their attempted interference in 2020 elections. According to information in the Microsoft report, a previous round of US sanctions on and retaliatory cyberattacks against Kremlin-linked cyber units for their efforts to improperly influence US elections may have actually prompted Fancy Bear to step up its attacks rather than deterring further activities. Electoral interference via cyberattack is emerging as the new normal, not only in the US, but also in EU countries and other democracies. In addition to shoring up their own cyberdefenses, the US and its allies may soon find common cause in establishing rules of the road – and agreed multilateral countermeasures – to protect their systems from increasingly aggressive cyberattacks by non-democratic powers.
Iran’s nuclear chief announced this week that the country is building a new facility for production of advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges near its Natanz nuclear site. The facility would replace one that was damaged in a July fire that Iran claims was the result of sabotage. This latest announcement is one of a string of incidents and information releases indicating that Iran is repeatedly violating its commitments under a nuclear deal signed in 2015 with the US, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the UK  in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. A few days prior, the International Atomic Energy agency reported that Iran now has more than 10 times the amount of enriched uranium it is permitted to possess under the 2015 nuclear accord, though the stockpile is not enriched to levels required to build a nuclear weapon. Iran began to more openly violate its commitments under the accord after the US withdrew in 2018, and has continued openly flouting agreed restrictions while engaged in a steady escalation of tensions with the US. The Iranians are progressing in their push to develop a nuclear weapon, and this will become an increasingly troubling issue for the US and our allies. Iran is approaching a red line that if crossed could well result in a military confrontation.

Warning shots were fired at the disputed India-China border in the Himalayas, marking the first reported violation in decades of a long-held no-firearm protocol at the Line of Actual Control (an agreed, de facto demarcation between the two countries). Though there were no casualties, this was an alarming escalation, especially in light of weeks of attempts by both sides to reach a diplomatic resolution after a June border confrontation between the Chinese and Indian armies killed at least 20. Since the fatal June incident, India and China have flooded the area with reinforcements, artillery, tanks, and aircraft, while simultaneously pursuing a diplomatic solution. We do not think that either country wants war, but with nationalist sentiment running high on both sides, Indian and Chinese leaders are also under pressure not to back down. With neither side willing to advance or retreat, China and India may be entering into a prolonged standoff with occasional flare-ups between their two armies, any of which could have the potential to create more casualties.