U.S. Ambassador Degnan Predicts Russian Attempts to Interfere in Upcoming Georgian Elections
U.S. Ambassador to Georgia Kelly Degnan said in a July 1 panel at the Georgian Institute of Politics that Russia “is quite likely” to attempt to interfere in Georgia’s October parliamentary elections. She noted that Georgia is an “obvious target” for Russian disinformation campaigns and called the October 28, 2019, cyber attack on Georgia a “serious warning” for Georgia and other countries.
On February 21, the Georgian Foreign Ministry said that the Russian General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate Center for Special Technologies (also known as Unit 74455 and Sandworm) was responsible for the October attacks targeting the websites and servers of Georgian governmental agencies, NGOs, courts, media outlets, and private organizations. Many of the hacked sites were hosted by the local web-providers Pro-Service and Serv.ge, suggesting that these web providers were intentionally targeted. On websites hosted by Pro-Service, hackers posted an image of Mikheil Saakashvili holding a Georgian flag upon which was written “I’ll be back.”
Many of Georgia’s Western allies, including the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union, swiftly condemned Russia for its actions, while the Russian Foreign Ministry denied all allegations, claiming that the United States, the United Kingdom, and Georgia were disseminating “synchronized” anti-Russia propaganda. The United States pledged its support for Georgia to strengthen cyber security and to protect against cyber attacks as well as to offer technical assistance to enhance Georgian public institutions.
The U.S. Department of State also linked the hacking to Sandworm, which had previously been deemed the source of the NotPetya virus that spread in 2017 in Ukraine, causing over $10 billion in damage, and the hacking of the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. Because the October 28 attack targeted both pro-government and opposition media in Georgia, Russia’s final goal of the hacking is not clear. Khatuna Mshvidobadze, a cybersecurity-focused fellow at the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, suggested two possibilities. First, the attacks occurred during protests against the current Georgian parliament, and so the attacks could have been an effort to sew further discord in society, especially because the Saakashvili pictures posted by hackers suggest an attempt to inflame political tensions. Second, the attacks on Georgia might simply be a testing ground for new cyber warfare techniques that would be perfected to use against bigger threats in Europe or the United States.
While the final objective of Russian hacking in Georgia remains unclear, it is evident that Russia has staged cyber attacks on Georgia before and has previously attempted to interfere with elections through disinformation campaigns and hacking. While Ambassador Degnan has no definitive proof, Russia’s record of cyber attacks against Georgia makes her prediction of an upcoming attack coinciding with the upcoming Georgian elections in October a serious matter needing coordinated defense.