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Sam Jayne / Axios

Rinat Akhmetshin, the mysterious Russian-American who attended the June 2016 meeting at which Donald Trump Jr. arrived expecting dirt on Hillary Clinton from Moscow, seems to be a sideshow. But his handiwork — finding and, with diabolical precision, disseminating incriminating records — is a reminder of the important difference between Russian and American tactics in the new age of intelligent cyber-war.

The key takeaway: With its cyber strategy, the U.S. has been fixated on the potential for paralyzing attacks on critical infrastructure such as the electricity grid, and establishing international norms against them. But that left the U.S. blinkered when Russia, seeking strategic advantage, carried out an old-fashioned information roundhouse, tweaked for the cyber age with intelligent fake news bots.

How we got here: For reasons of the free flow of information, the U.S., going back to the Clinton administration in the late 1990s, has resisted attempts by Russia and China to impose restrictions on the Internet. The strategy wasn't wrong-headed per se — a successful attack on U.S. energy systems, for example, could trigger mayhem in the civilian population. But, in its suspicions about Russian and Chinese motives, it failed to consider the big picture.

  • There is, strictly speaking, no international law barring what U.S. intelligence agencies call a hacking-and-fake news campaign run out of the Kremlin.
  • Robert Morgus, a cyber analyst with the New America Foundation, tells Axios: "The reluctance to talk about information has come back to bite us as we have zero international normative or legal leverage to push back against this type of behavior other than 'hacking is bad,.' And even then, we don't really have an argument. Hacking is also a modern reality, especially in the world of espionage."

And we may be back where we started: In the closing weeks of his administration, Obama fell back on the American strength — offensive capability on infrastructure sabotage. According to the Washington Post, he signed an order for the NSA to place destructive implants in Russian infrastructure, to be triggered at will from the outside. It's not known what Trump has done with the order or the impacts since taking office.

Go deeper

Schumer's m(aj)ority checklist

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. Photo: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

Capitalizing on the Georgia runoffs, achieving a 50-50 Senate and launching an impeachment trial are weighty to-dos for getting Joe Biden's administration up and running on Day One.

What to watch: A blend of ceremonies, hearings and legal timelines will come into play on Tuesday and Wednesday so Chuck Schumer can actually claim the Senate majority and propel the new president's agenda.

The dark new reality in Congress

National Guard troops keep watch at security fencing. Photo: Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

This is how bad things are for elected officials and others working in a post-insurrection Congress:

  • Rep. Norma Torres (D-Calif.) said she had a panic attack while grocery shopping back home.
  • Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said police may also have to be at his constituent meetings.
  • Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) told a podcaster he brought a gun to his office on Capitol Hill on Jan. 6 because he anticipated trouble with the proceedings that day.
Off the Rails

Episode 3: Descent into madness ... Trump: "Sometimes you need a little crazy"

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photos: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Beginning on election night 2020 and continuing through his final days in office, Donald Trump unraveled and dragged America with him, to the point that his followers sacked the U.S. Capitol with two weeks left in his term. This Axios series takes you inside the collapse of a president.

Episode 3: The conspiracy goes too far. Trump's outside lawyers plot to seize voting machines and spin theories about communists, spies and computer software.

President Trump was sitting in the Oval Office one day in late November when a call came in from lawyer Sidney Powell. "Ugh, Sidney," he told the staff in the room before he picked up. "She's getting a little crazy, isn't she? She's really gotta tone it down. No one believes this stuff. It's just too much."