Joe Biden must take extra precautions to ensure his safety and warn Putin that any Russian interference will be met with a crushing response
The American election is just three weeks away and polls are showing that Joe Biden is leading Donald Trump by double digits both nationwide and in many of the critical swing states. This poses both a conundrum for Russia and a danger to Biden because Russia cannot simply force a win for Donald Trump by interfering on the margins as it did in 2016. Instead, to have an effect, it must take risks by going big and going reckless.
This puts Vladimir Putin at a crossroads – does he read the tea leaves and cut his losses by accepting a Biden win or does he see this as an opportunity to further undermine America by unleashing the full Russian malign toolkit. For the purposes of this article, we will assume the latter.
Joe Biden is at grave personal risk from Russia
Russia has a long history of using assassination to effect its geopolitical goals, especially around elections. Although there have been no specific public threats by Russia to assassinate any American, including Mr. Biden, security officials in the United States would be foolish and naïve not to consider this very real possibility based on Russia’s recent use of poisons and assassinations. Indeed, members of the Russian Duma and commentators on Kremlin state media outlets have stated recently that the only way Donald Trump can win is if something happens to Joe Biden.
- On August 20, 2020, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was poisoned with the Novichok toxin during a trip to support opposition leaders in eastern Russia. He did not ingest the poison, instead it was on his clothes and/or water bottle and likely entered his body through his skin.
- In the heat of the 2004 presidential election in Ukraine, pro-West candidate Viktor Yushchenko suddenly fell ill and disappeared from the campaign trail. When he reappeared, his face was disfigured, the result of what his doctors described as a near-fatal dose of dioxin administered by Russian agents.
- February 2017, officials in the country of Montenegro, on the day of the parliamentary elections, uncovered an attempted coup by Kremlin operatives, which envisaged an attack on the country’s parliament and assassination of Prime Minister Milo Đukanović. Montenegro later convicted two Russian spies of involvement in that crime.
- In February 2015, Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was shot on a public bridge in Moscow, the day after he called for a march opposing the invasion of Ukraine.
- On August 23, 2019, Chechen Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, who fought against Russia during the Chechen war, was assassinated in a Berlin park by a Russian with a GRU-issued passport.
- In March 2018, former Russian intelligence officer, Sergei Skripal, his daughter and two others were poisoned with the Novichok toxin by Russian operatives in the United Kingdom who put the poison on a doorknob and perfume bottle.
- During last year’s Ukrainian election, Russia employed an active assassination squad which killed intelligence agents. It was exposed after a bomb blew up prematurely, resulting in the arrest of seven Russians.
- The list of recent Russian political assassinations and attempts is very long, and includes Alexander Litvinenko, Vladimir Kara-Murza, Georgi Markov, Emir Khattab, Alexander Perepilichny, Karinna Moskalenko, and Anna Politkovskaya.
Clearly, Russia uses assassination as part of its broad toolkit to undermine democracies and free elections. Based on this evidence, it is imperative that additional steps be taken to ensure the safety of Joe Biden during the remaining campaign and likely transition. Specifically:
- All of Mr. Biden’s food and liquids must come from approved and screened sources, and all bottles of water and other liquids, including shampoos, aftershave lotions, and toothpaste must be sanitized prior to each use.
- Mr. Biden should be prohibited from touching anything that he routinely would touch such as a door handle or knob, without wearing gloves.
- Antidotes such as atropine must be on hand at all times to counter various poisonings and a medical doctor skilled in poisons should always be present to administer them if necessary.
- Mr. Biden should avoid whenever possible any outdoor events.
- Mr. Biden should not ingest any food or beverage at diners, delis, or other campaign events.
- Mr. Biden’s security detail should be doubly checked for any ties to Russia or other right-wing organizations.
- Mr. Biden, his security detail, and his senior staff should be put on high alert so they are all security conscious during the final weeks to Election Day and beyond should election results be disputed. This must include extra precautions against any situation that could allow COVID-19 transmission.
Russia Continues To Use Andriy Derkach To Harm Joe Biden’s Candidacy
Over the past two months, the American DNI, CIA and Treasury Department have all found that Ukrainian Parliamentarian Andriy Derkach is an “active” Russian agent spreading false information about Joe Biden in order to harm his electoral bid and interfere with the 2020 election.
These findings resulted in sanctions being imposed against Mr. Derkach. However, this has not deterred Mr. Derkach or stopped his campaign to target and smear Mr. Biden and the Democratic Party. In fact, he has held a
recent press conference and posted a graphic on his Facebook page titled
“Democorruption” with Joe Biden and George Soros as the ringleaders.
As part of the disinformation campaign, Mr. Derkach has falsely accused the largest NGO in Ukraine, “100 Percent Life,” of laundering and squandering millions or billions of dollars on behalf of Mr. Biden. This false information has been disseminated in the United States by Donald Trump’s own attorney, Rudy Giuliani. On September 17, 2020, the Director of “100 Percent Life,” Dmitri Sherembei, sent a letter to the FBI and Acting
United States Attorney Strauss offering to fully cooperate with the DOJ in any prosecution of Mr. Derkach and Mr. Giuliani for using these false smears to (1) undermine the bilateral relationship between Ukraine and the United States, (2) interfere with the Ukrainian nongovernmental sector, and (3) influence the American election. Clearly, both Ukrainian and American law enforcement officials must come together to prosecute Mr. Derkach and those who have conspired with him.
The use of ransomware to shut down election systems
For years, Russian intelligence services have been using ransomware to harm their enemies, including Ukraine, and have targeted election systems in the United States with such malware. Just last week, Tyler Technologies, a Texas company which sells election software, was hit with ransomware, and it has also been used against Ukraine in its elections.
Russia will likely use ransomware against major Democratic cities in swing states such as Detroit, Milwaukee and/or Philadelphia to shut down the voting system or the tabulation system. In fact, ransomware was used by Russian operatives last year in both Baltimore and Atlanta to shut down city computers in what appears to be a successful test of its capabilities. Moreover, Russia will likely use ransomware to attack Republican strongholds in order to sow chaos, shift blame to the Democrats, and give Donald Trump the ammunition to challenge or undermine the credibility of the election.
In order to counter ransomware, all companies and election officials in the United States must have segregated backups for all critical election systems, conduct weekly security scans of computer systems and databases (including on Election Day), update all anti-virus/malware software, and advise all employees not to open any unknown emails, links or attachments.
Disinformation on Social Media
Russia continues to use disinformation about hot-button issues to sway the American election. However, it is not only doing this from Russian territories but is also using proxies in other countries to circumvent detection. Last week, Ukrainian law enforcement officials broke up two massive bot farms created and funded by Russia that were planning to interfere with the Ukrainian local October elections and then likely segue into the November American election.
These disinformation operations could be curtailed if American officials would immediately set up a hotline to accept reports about Russian disinformation operations and operatives, and have a dedicated team to interface with social media companies to quickly remove them. One of the biggest problems in the United States is the unresponsiveness of social media companies to complaints about disinformation. In Ukraine, in contrast, cyber specialists are able to quickly interface with those companies to respond to takedown requests.
Hacking into Election systems
It has been well documented by American officials that Russian operatives hacked into or probed election systems in all 50 states during the 2016 election, and even interfered with voter databases. Clearly, Russia was testing their vulnerabilities in preparation for the upcoming election. Now Russia has the experience and capability to manipulate or delete voter databases so people cannot vote on election day, and attack the voter tabulation systems to alter the vote. This could result in the loser being declared the winner, or could simply be used to undermine the credibility of the election.
Again, it is imperative that American officials contact and warn all election
administrators to have segregated backups of all databases and tabulation results, employ security screens on election day, update anti-virus software and malware removal tools, and remind employees not to open any emails, links or websites they do not personally know and trust.
Ukraine attacks the source of Russian interference
Ukrainian cyber forces, which are on a 24/7 war footing with Russia, use every available means to counter and neutralize Russian cyberattacks. These include both active and passive network operations involving the modification of malicious transmissions and gaining unauthorized access to Russian systems after actively monitoring those systems. The tools used by these cyber forces include direct hacks, DDoS (Floods), man-in-the-middle attacks, packet sniffing, reverse engineering, and web and server defacement. The United States Cyber Command used similar tools during the 2018 election to counter Russian attacks. Despite this, American cyber forces could learn a great deal from the vast experience of Ukraine in this cyber warfare space, and they should coordinate and cooperate with Ukrainian experts to ensure the most effective countermeasures are
employed against Russian malign interference.
Joe Biden must warn Vladimir Putin against interfering with ehe Election
On October 6, 2020, the United States Department of Homeland Security issued a threat report stating that Russia is the key nation involved in spreading disinformation and misinformation in the U.S., along with posing an “acute” cybersecurity threat headed into the next year. In light of all this evidence pointing to Russia as the prime malefactor against the United States and its elections, Joe Biden should now make a public policy speech warning Vladimir Putin that any cyberattack on the United States election will be considered an act of war which will be met with a crushing response that goes well beyond sanctions. This type of strong statement is the only thing that Putin will understand.Donald Trump elections Joe Biden Vladimir Putin