Past Events

Peter Debbins describes Russia’s worldview and how it influences their grand strategy and actions in cyberspace

Mr. Peter Debbins (’15) came to The Institute of World Politics on January 29, 2020, to give a lecture on Russian worldview, grand strategy, and cyberspace. Mr. Debbins has extensive experience in intelligence, national security, strategic planning, cyber and cyberspace, hybrid warfare, business, economics, finance, world geopolitical environment, CBRNE (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, enhanced Explosives), and science and technology. He also possesses native fluency in Russia. Mr. Debbins is currently working as an Area Studies and Hybrid Warfare instructor for the U.S. European Command (EUCOM) and NATO. He has previously served as an officer in the U.S. Army, as a Russian Cyber Analyst for the U.S. Government, and a Cyber Operations Instructor.

Mr. Debbins began his talk by asking what Russia’s motivations are. After taking several answers from audience members, Mr. Debbins explained that Russia’s motivating factor is their belief in themselves as a messianic nation. This means that Russia believes its destiny is to be a leader at the end times to meet Christ in Jerusalem, making them an unfulfilled nation. During the Soviet era, Russia became motivated by communism and creating “the worker’s paradise” by establishing a new international system. However, Mr. Debbins explained that Russia lost its ideology in 1991 and therefore its unified system, which is very problematic for a nation that believes it is destined to be a leader.

Mr. Debbins said that in the meantime, while it is trying to figure out its unifying ideology, Russia is determined to undermine international order, because when the system collapses, they will still be stronger than other nations and hopefully will have achieved a unifying ideology by that point. According to Mr. Debbins’ argument, Russia is using everything within the umbrella of national power to try to weaken international order. The U.S. and European nations have regulations to prevent unethical intelligence gathering practices, while Russia has no such restrictions. According to Mr. Debbins, Russia has no problem with breaking the rules that govern the international order because, in their view, the rules are just constructs of the ruling class or the U.S.

Mr. Debbins then described Russia’s strategy for how they will project their power into the world through their use of asymmetrical warfare. Russia spends its money developing connections, establishing primary targets from certain populations and infrastructure, establishing unified command and joint cooperation, and positing weapons. Mr. Debbins stated that Russia is continually conducting hybrid warfare because they believe that they are in a constant state of war and thus always must have the upper hand.

According to Mr. Debbins, in hybrid warfare, the center of gravity is not the military or economics but the psychological realm. Mr. Debbins accounted for Russia’s use of hybrid warfare by highlighting the advantages of using cyberwarfare and propaganda. Russia does not have the economic or military strength to take over countries. However, they can implement cyber warfare and propaganda tactics to weaken the U.S. and the West by breaking the bonds between leaders and the people at a much lower cost than if they attempted to use military power. Within the cyberspace domain, the only people that Russians do not attack are other Russians. Russian hackers are often non-state actors without specific targets, and while they may not have direct ties to the Russian government, Mr. Debbins described how Russia will allow themselves to be blamed for attacks to accumulate “dark power.” Dark power, according to Mr. Debbins, is allowing rumors to spread about Russia’s involvement in certain attacks even if Russia did not have any involvement.

However, Mr. Debbins warned against using Russia as a scapegoat, because it prevents the U.S. from solving its inherent problems concerning social vulnerabilities. Instead, Mr. Debbins believes that the U.S. and the West should be bringing Russia into society to show them “a better way.” According to Mr. Debbins, the way to counter Russian hybrid warfare is not to isolate Russia, but to engage them in a transparent debate while also addressing U.S. vulnerabilities and resolving them before Russia seriously weakens the U.S.

This event was sponsored by IWP’s Cyber Intelligence Initiative.

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