CAMBRIDGE – In early November, US President Barack Obama reportedly contacted Russian President Vladimir Putin personally to warn against cyber attacks aimed at the American presidential election. The previous month, the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, and Jeh Johnson, the Secretary of Homeland Security, publicly accused Russia’s most senior officials of using cyber attacks to “interfere with the US election process.”
In the aftermath of the November 8 election, no firm evidence has emerged that hacking interfered with voting machines or other electoral machinery. But in an election that turned on 100,000 votes in three key states, some observers argue that Russian cyber interference in the political process may have had a significant impact.
Can such Russian behavior be deterred in the future? Deterrence always depends on who and what one is trying to deter.
Ironically, deterring states from using force may be easier than deterring them from actions that do not rise to that level. The threat of a surprise attack such as a “cyber Pearl Harbor” has probably been exaggerated. Critical infrastructures such as electricity or communications are vulnerable, but major state actors are likely to be constrained by interdependence. And the United States has made clear that deterrence is not limited to cyber retaliation (though that is possible), but can target other sectors with any tools it chooses, ranging from naming and shaming and economic sanctions to nuclear weapons.