Russia's senior political leadership has helped the Kremlin build one of the most aggressive "cyber armies" in the world by playing a central role in recruiting hackers for cyber units that are housed within various national ministries and military divisions, according to an investigation released Monday.
Though cyber operations have served as a key tool for Moscow's foreign policy over the past few decades, the new report by independent Russian news site, Meduza, details how the nation built up its cyber arsenal to carry out the scope of operations seen today.
Sergei Shoigu, who was appointed as Russia's defense minister in November 2012, actively pushed to create a Russian cyber unit that mirrored those of the U.S. Cyber Command, which commenced the military's involvement in cyber operations, Buzzfeed News reported. Four months after taking office, Shoigu announced he was leading a headhunt for young programmers to join the defense ministry's newly launched "research squadrons" that were embedded within military units.
"This need is preconditioned by the scope of software required by the Army in the next five years," Shoigu said during a meeting with the leaders of engineering colleges and information security departments.
Senior government officials were also tasked with recruiting hackers, often enlisting individuals from academic institutions or blackmailing criminals who were active in the nation's digital underground to work on behalf of the Kremlin.
In October, the Obama administration formally accused Russia of directing the series of cyber attacks against political computer networks in an attempt to influence the U.S. elections. The announcement came as WikiLeaks continued to release batches of hacked emails stolen from the Democratic Party and operatives of the Hillary Clinton campaign.
Meduza reported that before targeting U.S. systems, Russia spent years testing the limits of their cyber capabilities on eastern European states. Those attacks helped lay the groundwork for the current "cyber war" being waged against the U.S.