Showcasing our researchers’ work and their latest media appearances as they weigh in on developments at the intersection of national security and emerging technology.
In the weeks leading up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Cybersecurity Infrastructure Security Agency prepared the Biden administration for potential Russian cyberattacks in the United States. CISA drew attention to grids, pipelines, and critical infrastructure where attacks “would not necessarily endanger lives, but cause enough inconvenience to sway public opinion” against U.S. efforts against Russia, Research Fellow Katerina Sedova, an expert on cybersecurity and disinformation, told Axios. “If Russia actually did this, it would be a massive escalation that would very likely result in a U.S. response in kind,” she said. “And Russia has a lot to lose right now from our cyber response.”
Sedova was a guest on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, where she discussed potential Russian cyber threats and ongoing disinformation campaigns using social media. “One of the ways in which actors like this can use cyberattacks is as an influence operation,” she noted. “They could use a cyberattack on critical infrastructure to cause enough inconvenience for the United States public, to raise public concern about not having access to gas, or high gas prices, and really spin up and amplify that concern in order to try to influence the decision-making of our leadership.” And on MSNBC Reports, Sedova drilled down on a Russia-backed disinformation campaign using fake social media accounts to target Ukrainians: “It is failing because it is tone deaf. It is failing because in order to succeed or have any impact, campaigns have to connect to a grievance or have any kernel of truth.”
In an interview with CNBC, Assistant Director of Analysis and Research Fellow Margarita Konaev also addressed Russian disinformation regarding the war in Ukraine.“I think they’re playing different games,” said Konaev. “Ukraine doesn’t need to convince its own population that they’re facing a serious problem because they have bombs landing on their heads.” Russia may not need to focus its efforts internationally since the effects of its previous disinformation campaigns are cumulative. “It builds upon previous efforts that have already instilled doubt, that eroded trust, and that built within the target society, domestic actors that perpetuate that narrative,” she said. “To an extent, after years and years and years of cultivating that space, there’s really no meaningful reason for Russia to continue doing it actively.”
NPR contacted Konaev for a report on how disinformation on social media challenges efforts to accurately depict the reality of the war in Ukraine. A viral TikTok video of a woman starting a Russian armored vehicle “was depicted as this has been, you know, taken by Ukrainian forces or resistance. And that’s not what it was,” Konaev noted. In reality, the video was posted by a Russian mechanic and vlogger weeks before the Russian invasion. Konaev said such videos, together with others that offer only a narrow picture of events, contribute to “narratives about massive desertion, mutiny – Russian troops are about to turn around.”
Russia’s AI expansion may be slowing down as a result of new U.S. export controls as well as the withdrawal of foreign technology companies and brain drain, according to Politico’s Morning Tech, which noted that Russia has long been a major global player in the development and application of machine learning and other AI tools. “There were areas of progress and some accomplishments, both in the civilian and military space,” Konaev commented. The recent broader exodus of tech firms from Russia will leave any company pursuing advanced AI research high and dry when it comes to financing. “It’s impossible to overstate how much they’re going to lose in terms of access to the investment you need to advance technological innovation,” said Konaev.
The Washington Post
Konaev, who has a research background in Russian urban warfare, discussed the devastation in Ukraine in The Washington Post, particularly the damage done to the infrastructure of Mariupol. “We’re trying to understand the destruction, but the truth is that it is part and parcel of how the Russians fight,” Konaev said. “We keep hearing that Ukraine is not like Syria or it is not like Chechnya. In Mariupol, we’re learning that is not true.”
Konaev also commented on the unknown number of military casualties from the war in another article by The Post. “Military casualties are inherently difficult to track, especially in a conflict like this where the information front is so important,” she said. “There is an incentive to overestimate and overcount some things,” like enemy troops killed, and to underestimate and undercount other things, like a country’s own casualties.
In an interview with Vox, Konaev described Russia’s siege tactics in Ukraine. “The Russian approach to urban warfare very much emphasizes priming and prepping the ground for any sort of ground operation with this destruction from the air. It’s to break morale, it’s to cause significant damage to the infrastructure of cities, it’s to cause high levels of displacement from the cities,” she said. “That air campaign is an integrated and important part of the way that Russia sees warfare.”
The Wall Street Journal
The Wall Street Journal reached out to Research Fellow Emily Weinstein to discuss the effects of the new export controls, which put the responsibility on exporters to identify military end users. “This could be a significant obstacle,” said Weinstein, noting that figuring out who a military end user is in countries such as Russia or China can be time-consuming and often requires specialized language skills.
In an opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal, Research Analyst Will Hunt debated with the Cato Institute’s Scott Lincicome about whether the government should subsidize chip production in the United States. In short, Hunt’s answer is yes. According to Hunt, subsidies would level the playing field with South Korea and Taiwan and contribute to U.S. competitiveness. “Action is urgently needed,” he wrote. “Congress should fully fund the CHIPS for America Act incentive.”
CSET’s March webinar Bringing the Chipmakers Home featuring Will Hunt discussed how foreign high-skilled talent is needed to increase U.S. competitiveness in semiconductor manufacturing. The Register covered the event and highlighted his report “Reshoring Chipmaking Capacity Requires High-Skilled Foreign Talent.” “Ideally, many of these more than 3,500 foreign workers would be current employees of leading-edge logic chipmakers such as TSMC and Samsung, simply transferring from fabs overseas to these chipmakers’ newly built fabs in the United States,” Hunt wrote.
MIT Technology Review
China’s quest to become a cyber superpower is paying off thanks to a strategy of tightened control of its cybersecurity sector, big spending, and a hacking infrastructure, according to MIT Technology Review. “The Chinese have a unique system reflecting the party-state’s authoritarian model,” said Research Analyst Dakota Cary. Chinese cyber researchers are banned from attending international hacking competitions, but can take part in a home-grown version. Modeled after the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s 2016 Cyber Grand Challenge, China has put on at least seven Robot Hacking Games competitions since 2017, according to his research. In his testimony before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, Cary noted that Chinese academic, military, and private-sector teams have all been drawn to competitions overseen by the Chinese military. Official documents tie automated discovery of software vulnerabilities directly to China’s national goals. “Time and again, China has studied the U.S. system, copied its best attributes, and in many cases expanded the scope and reach,” said Cary.
Spotlight on CSET Experts: Margarita Konaev
Margarita Konaev is CSET’s Associate Director of Analysis and a Research Fellow. Her research focuses on military application of AI and Russian military innovation.
Her reports include Headline or Trend Line?, Trusted Partners, and The Path of Least Resistance. Her writing has been featured in a variety of outlets, including Defense One, War on the Rocks, and The Washington Post.
Interested in speaking with Margarita or our other experts? Contact External Affairs Specialist Adrienne Thompson at firstname.lastname@example.org.