Small Wars Journal

A Coin for the Tsar: The Two Disruptive Sides of Cryptocurrency

Tue, 01/16/2018 - 12:25am

A Coin for the Tsar: The Two Disruptive Sides of Cryptocurrency

Chris Telley

Vladimir Putin is getting the Kremlin into the cryptocurrency business, and the United States should be worried: The West is still reeling from the last time Russia delved into disruptive social technology.  For kleptocrats and non-state groups alike, cryptocurrencies—like Bitcoin— provide a means to “commit the oldest sins in the newest ways;” what’s more, an adversary state can scale up these novel advantages to further disrupt the contemporary security environment.[i] However, cryptocurrencies also offer a host of benefits to entrepreneurial individuals and innovative economies. Acting to influence the cryptocurrency ecosystem can be a decisive option for national competition below the threshold of war, whereas not acting magnifies the asymmetric advantage these technologies provide to our adversaries, particularly Russia. This paper examines the evolving power of cryptocurrency, describes threat behaviors enabled by the technology, and recommends some ways to counter threat activity in this nascent digital economic environment while preserving the possibilities for healthy innovation.

Bitcoin was the first mainstream cryptocurrency and is the subject of most of the hype on this topic; therefore, it will be our vehicle for examining the power of the technology. Bitcoin emerged in 2008 as an anonymous white paper. It proposed solving the double-spending problem of digital money, wherein a payee makes a copy of the electronic packet representing transferred funds for duplicitous use, by applying a series of timestamps to each transaction. These timestamps, or hashes, are distributed to everyone on the network as both a record and cryptographic key, called distributed ledger technology or the blockchain.[ii] So, a digital currency is just one that is stored in code and traded online, a cryptocurrency is a system in which electronic data packets move value and employ cryptography to track purchases and transfers.[iii]

Although the form is new, bitcoin is currency; it holds value over time, is easily translated into prices, and is more or less widely accepted.[iv]  Virtual currencies like bitcoin can now be used to buy a meal in many major cities or even finance a car.[v] Bitcoin was first commercially exchanged at three cents a coin but, as of this writing, is trading at over $15,000 a coin.[vi]  That is truly impressive growth, even bubble-like, but cryptocurrency is barely out of the “innovators” region on the technology adoption curve: there is about $90 trillion—roughly converted to US dollars—in the global money supply, whereas the entire cryptocurrency market has an estimated total value of only $439 billion.[vii] Thus, one might ask, if virtual currency is less than .5 percent of the world’s money, why is it a big deal?

Printing currency was once the right of governments and a few large banking institutions alone. Cryptocurrencies are revolutionary because they are neither backed by government fiat nor a commodity like gold and yet they are accepted across international borders.

Much as a central bank’s monetary policy can grow the money supply, cryptocurrency does so by mining. With a few highly capable computers, any entrepreneur too can task them to facilitate the blockchain and, together with doing a competitively timed complex calculation, be rewarded with bitcoins. This “mining” process creates supply across a diverse market of over a thousand digital coins or tokens. The math is intensive enough that it has to be divided up among a pool of special purpose computers that share the reward; if one owns the pool, they own all the reward.[viii]  Normal users purchase their bitcoin through third party digital exchanges with standard currency; these then go into a digital “wallet” which is just software on a computer or smartphone.[ix] The consumer holds all of his or her monetary assets, without a bank. As the Medicis’ Renaissance ledgers challenged the power of kings, first generation digital currencies are siphoning away the once unquestionable power of the central bank and giving it to individuals.

That power can be used for positive entrepreneurship or for more malign purposes; its capacity to disrupt comes from its functionality as a payments protocol outside the control of any state-sanctioned gatekeeper or standards enforcer. If circumventing the seven different financial institutions involved in a credit card swipe Starbucks purchase is cost saving for the ordinary consumer, it is lifesaving for the criminal.[x] This technology is being used, right now, to conceal the edges of nefarious networks and their crimes. The money exists in ones and zeros, so there’s no smuggling of bulk currency through customs. Transactions in bitcoin and its ilk boarder on anonymity; what criminal wouldn’t want that? It should be no surprise, therefore, that bitcoin is the most commonly used currency on the Dark Web, where other popular “altcoins” like Monero, Ethereum, Ripple, and Litecoin are also accepted. The Dark Web, which is mostly used for trade in narcotics, is only the tip of the iceberg for cryptocurrency-enabled illicit networks.[xi] The Armory, an offshoot of the old Silk Road, had vendors that offered all manner of weapons, from pistols to RPGs though, if a buyer wants a shoulder fired anti-aircraft missile though, “we do have resources and can make certain introductions, for a fee.”[xii]

In short, everyone dealing in illicit markets, from the inane copyright infringers to brutal human traffickers, can find comfort in the anonymity of cryptocurrency—especially terrorists. As early as 2015, ISIS was suspected of having moved funds through Bitcoin and a Salafi-jihadist group in Gaza conducted a fundraising campaign, under the title Jahezona, or “Equip us” in Arabic.[xiii] The practice has since migrated to Islamic State groups in Indonesia.[xiv] In the United States, prosecutors found Ali Amin, of Manassas, Virginia, using his Twitter and a blog site to provide instructions on how to use Bitcoin to send funds to the Islamic militants.[xv] Since the beginning of the War on Terror, “follow the money” has been a key mantra for combating terrorist networks; the United States still using this methodology, to great effect, against the Islamic State’s oil revenue.[xvi]  This new technology makes that a lot harder.

So, if cryptocurrency allows non-state groups to elude the power of a state, then it is entirely possible for much better resourced nation-states to scale up the capability to further any disruptive ends. According to the head of U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), Russia is “particularly adept at leveraging unconventional approaches to advancing their interests.”[xvii] Vladimir Putin has exploited social media to disrupt affairs abroad while sustaining his grip on domestic power. Cryptocurrencies provide an equivalent capability.

Putin recently signed five presidential orders requiring a legal framework to handle digital currencies by doing things like taxing miners and regulating initial coin offerings.[xviii] Putin himself believes cryptocurrency is a “potential tool to help Russia diversify its economy beyond oil and gas” and has ordered what seem like perfectly legitimate digital infrastructure efforts.[xix]  The Russian government is said to be implementing blockchain, the backbone of cryptocurrency, in matters from property law to personal records.[xx] Russian executives believe that cryptocurrencies are as momentous as the birth of personal computing or the internet, revolutions they missed because of “geopolitical isolation.” They want this time to be different.[xxi] This hope for growth is not unique, as South Korea, the US, Vietnam, and Canada have introduced laws to formalize cryptocurrency markets.[xxii]

Were the national policy in question regarding a new energy resource or manufacturing technique, the cause for alarm would be minimal, but the emergence of cryptocurrency, much like social media in the early twenty-first century, has significant disruptive potential. Just as taking control of the site VKontakte, a carbon copy of Facebook, allowed the Russian government to cloud the MH17 shoot down and veil operations in Syria from their own people, cryptocurrencies can allow Putin to sustain his kleptocracy. Many experts have emphasized that fostering cryptocurrencies could be a means for Russian officials to skirt sanctions of the Magnitsky Act and U.S./EU sanctions relating to Ukraine. Putin is believed by some to the richest man in the world.[xxiii] The capabilities offered by virtual currency could be convenient for moving billions of dollars of ill-gotten funds, but virtual money laundering is not that novel. North Korea has already been using cryptocurrency to sidestep international sanctions associated with its nuclear program.[xxiv]

The novelty of cryptocurrency, with regard to Russia, appeared when the Kremlin began funneling state resources into efforts to essentially print money - money that is not Russian. One of the executive orders requires forming a single payment space and the creation of a cyber-ruble.[xxv] This was initially thought to be a “crypto-ruble,” an independently mined stateless currency, until the Deputy Finance Minister announced that it was essentially an Ethereum-like “master chain” version of the Russian fiat currency.[xxvi] While the crypto-rubble sits on the drawing board, Dmitry Marinichev, a top Kremlin lieutenant, has converted a Soviet car factory into a cryptocurrency mining complex. Alexander Drozdenko, Leningrad's governor, has provided the city’s underutilized nuclear power plant for crypto miners to set up shop.[xxvii] Since the Bitcoin mining ecosystem cumulatively uses more power than many countries, Russia’s vast and underutilized power industry provide a state-provided competitive advantage for Putin’s close allies.[xxviii] They are aiming to raise hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of bitcoin and Ethereum; the state is investing in acquiring what is essentially a foreign currency, en masse.

Marinichev claims that Russia has the potential to carve out a 30 percent share of the global cryptocurrency mining market.  However, if the Kremlin holds more than 51 percent of any one coin ecosystem’s computing power, it can then manipulate the blockchain to change transactions, essentially printing free digital money.[xxix] The value that a government can create from printing money, seigniorage, remains a large and viable financing venue to avoid borrowing from the public.[xxx] In order to pay for extravagance, governments have usually used their power to create money as an easier and safer alternative to higher taxes.[xxxi] If Putin can print money without further debasing his recovering national currency, what will he do with it?

There are several ways that Russian crypto-mining can be used to destabilize other nations. The 2016 U.S. election has been awash in controversy over inflammatory online ads placed by foreign governments; ad space can also be purchased with bitcoin.[xxxii] Majority ownership of a cryptocurrency also allows Putin to funnel money into populist political parties or diaspora guerillas movements without trace and without domestic effect. Most importantly, control of a money supply that can compete with a small fiat currency in terms of fungibility, acceptability, and portability can destabilize that market. Just as founding the Internet Research Agency allowed Russia to catalyze fractures in the European Union and American electorate, cryptocurrencies provide a platform to disrupt the social fabric of the Kremlin’s opponents. 

If Russia is, as USSOCOM believes, seeking to influence its neighbors’ economic decisions and will act aggressively to limit Western institutions then the disparate currencies of Eastern Europe are a critical vulnerability.[xxxiii] There are over twenty different currencies in Europe, some of which have money supplies that are already dwarfed by Ethereum, which is seemingly Putin’s favorite cryptocurrency.[xxxiv] The currencies of Croatia, Serbia, Moldova, and Albania all have money supplies (M1) that amount, in USD, to less than half of the Ethereum value in circulation.[xxxv] Whether in the form of Spanish Pelosi silver or Alexander’s Persian gold, injecting large sums of money into an economy raises prices and destabilizes markets. Also, Gresham's law states that "bad money drives out good” where two forms of commodity money are available, with similar value under the law, the more valuable commodity will disappear from circulation because people save it, producing a positive feedback cycle.[xxxvi] Large scale disruption may not even be necessary; as “The Red Web” author Andrei Soldatov quipped of social media, Putin does not necessarily have to dominate, “just contaminate the whole thing.”[xxxvii]

How does one fight a currency war when the other side’s ammunition comes out of thin air? One might be tempted to simply “pull the plug” on the offending cryptocurrency system, that might not be as easy as it sounds. Recognizing that Bitcoin can move value outside of the state’s control, Venezuela has employed physical force and put users in jail. China has banned its citizens from trading in cryptocurrencies and made new coin offerings illegal.[xxxviii] Other regimes will recognize the alternative currency as a challenge to national sovereignty. However, limitations on cryptocurrency may do more harm than good.

Only about 20 countries have recognizably organized banking and payment systems, which excludes a large portion of humanity from the goods and services of the financially connected world.[xxxix] Bitcoin, unlike fiat currency, is not subject to the fluctuation that may be associated with local government struggles with foreign debt obligations or regime largesse; cryptocurrencies are therefore a safer store of value in fragile states.

In Africa, where many populations have been failed by their nations’ conventional money, local cryptocurrency adoption is driving innovation.  From East African app BitPesa to BitFinance in Zimbabwe, virtual currencies are democratizing the economy and providing a banking service free of hyperinflation.[xl] Girls in Afghanistan were able to use Bitcoin to earn wages through global services and purchase products on worldwide markets, without the bank account forbidden by their local brand of Islam.[xli] Bitcoin can also drastically lower the cost of remittance payments from traditional, high cost, avenues.[xlii]  Anyone with an internet connection can make transactions a zero marginal cost endeavor, without the control of a gatekeeper, like a government or bank or hawala broker.

Virtual currencies are enabling growth and mitigating corruption across the developing world.[xliii]  A generation of counterinsurgency taught military leaders that economic disparity causes political instability; so, commanders will likely find ourselves Bitcoin advocates in the face of reactionary fervor.[xliv]

That said, few solutions exist to counter the specific capabilities of an adversary cryptocurrency network. This threat capability will require investments in resources and processes, across the whole of government, to discriminately target some nodes while avoiding collateral economic damage. There is ongoing research to fight criminal networks’ use of cryptocurrency by applying novel machine learning algorithms to the publicly available Bitcoin timestamps.[xlv] Unfortunately, using the data requires niche cross domain correlation to be effective, something not always available. Both research and training across the U.S. security apparatus are required to see and target the edges of these adversarial networks; if we do not, cryptocurrencies will allow any given opponent the ability to outmaneuver our networks.

There are, however, ways to bend the technology to a friendly state’s advantage. For one, conversion of one’s national investment to a blockchain digital form would answer the public demand for the entrepreneurial technology while curbing the market for dubious foreign controlled assets. Also, as much as some northern European countries have stood up “civil defense” and “guerilla” organizations against the threat of Russian invasion, investment in an external cryptocurrency would make for occupation more difficult and perhaps aid to general deterrence.[xlvi]

While coming to grips with the challenges and opportunities of cryptcurrency, we must also avoid inventing duplicitous systems.  As the Department of Defense moves forward with information as a seventh joint function, it is important to understand that money is trust, an idea, and therefore an information related capability (IRC). We already have skilled professionals who integrate and synchronize IRCs “to influence, disrupt, corrupt, or usurp decision making” in information markets like those that Bitcoin presents; information operations professionals must lead this new fight.[xlvii]

Among other disruptive innovations like big data, additive manufacturing, and virtual/augmented reality, it is not apparent yet whether Bitcoin itself is worth the hype. Some renowned economists and Wall Street titans think Bitcoin a fraud and if the recent bubble pops, it may indeed go the way of its Digicash predecessor.[xlviii] Nonetheless, independent digital currency looms large on the minds of businesses and governments alike, making new headlines every day. Cryptocurrencies must now be counted as an impactful part of the operational environment, much as social media began to be a decade ago.

Social media allowed every connected human to talk at one another, without rules or norms, and it is still rocking our world; economic media[xlix] like cryptocurrency is allowing people to move value without any of the old gatekeepers or their institutions. This is both a grave threat and a great opportunity. In order to adapt, the U.S. national security community must understand the power of cryptocurrencies, recognize threat adaptations, and invest in capabilities to influence the digital economic environment. The West has been outmaneuvered with social media, but must not be surprised by this technology. Refusing to act allows our adversaries, specifically Russia, to wield even more influence in tomorrow’s conflicts.

These are the opinions of the author and do not reflect the position of the Army or the United States Government.

End Notes

[i] Henry IV, Part 2: Act 4, Scene 3, Page 11

[ii] Satoshi Nakamoto. Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System. 2008. Accessed on 14 November, 2017.

[iii] Joshua Cooper Ramo, The Seventh Sense: Power, Fortune, and Survival in the Age of Networks, (New York, Little, Brown: 2016) p 119

[iv] Irena Asmundson and Ceyda Oner. “Back to Basics, What Is Money?.” International Monetary Fund. Accessed on 10 November, 2017.

[v] Marc Goodman, Future Crimes, (New York, Doubleday: 2015) p 265

[vi] Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business, (New York, Knopf Publishing Group, 2013) 273: Lucinda Shen. “Bitcoin Just Surged Past $8,000. Here's What's Causing the Spike.” Fortune. Accessed on 20 November, 2017.

[vii] Jeff Desjardins. “All of the World’s Money and Markets in One Visualization.” The Money Project. Accessed on 11 November, 2017. Edward Robinson. “Bitcoin Is No Bubble, Says Investor With $213 Million Stake.” Bloomberg. Accessed on 11 November, 2017.

[viii] Emerging Technology from the arXiv. “Quantum Computers Pose Imminent Threat to Bitcoin Security.” MIT Tech Review. Accessed on 09 November, 2017.

[ix] Marc Goodman, Future Crimes, (New York, Doubleday: 2015) p 264

[x] Paul Vigna and Michael Casey, The Age of Cryptocurrency, (New York, Picador, St. Martins Press, 2015) 99

[xi] Giacomo Persi Paoli, Judith Aldridge, Nathan Ryan, Richard Warnes, Behind the curtain, The illicit trade of firearms, explosives and ammunition on the dark we,. (Santa Monica, California. RAND, Arroyo Center. 2017) 19

[xii] Sam Biddle. “The Secret Online Weapons Store That'll Sell Anyone Anything.” Gizmodo. Accessed on 11 November, 2017.

[xiii] Security. “ISIS parks its cash in Bitcoin, experts say.” Fox News. November 25, 2015. Accessed December 5 2017.

Yaya Fanusie. “The New Frontier in Terror Fundraising: Bitcoin.” The Cipher Brief. Accessed on 05 November 2017.

[xiv] Resty Woro Yuniar. “Bitcoin, PayPal Used to Finance Terrorism, Indonesian Agency Says.” The Wall Street Journal. Accessed on 10 November 2017.

[xv]Celina Realuyo. North American Efforts to Combat the Financing of Terrorism. SOF Role in Combating Transnational Organized Crime. Joint Special Operations University Press. Accessed on 16 November 2017. 101

[xvi] Jeffrey Miller and Ian Corey. Follow the Money: Targeting Enemy War-Sustaining Activities. Joint Force Quarterly 87 (4th Quarter, October 2017). p 35

[xvii] GEN Raymond Thomas. “Statement before the Senate Armed Services Committee.” U.S. Special Operations Command. Accessed on 20 November 2017.

[xviii] Shannon Liao. “Inside Russia’s Love-Hate Relationship with Bitcoin.” The Verge. Accessed on 15 November, 2017.

[xix] Madhvi Mavadiya. “Putin And Ethereum: A Match Made In Fintech” Forbes. Accessed on 16 November 2017.

[xx] Vladimir Kozlov. Russian Government Announces First Blockchain Project. The Moscow Times. October 19, 2017. Accessed on 16 November 2017.

[xxi] Madhvi Mavadiya. “Putin And Ethereum: A Match Made In Fintech” Forbes. Accessed on 16 November 2017.

[xxii] Shannon Liao. “Inside Russia’s Love-Hate Relationship with Bitcoin.” The Verge. Accessed on 15 November, 2017.

[xxiii] David Z. Morris. “Vladimir Putin Is Reportedly Richer Than Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos Combined.” Forbes. Accessed on 16 November 2017.

[xxiv] Yuji Nakamura and Sam Kim. “North Korean hackers target South Korea’s ethereum exchanges.” Bloomberg. Accessed on 11 November 2017.

[xxv] Shannon Liao. “Inside Russia’s Love-Hate Relationship with Bitcoin.” The Verge. Accessed on 15 November, 2017.

[xxvi] Ibid.

[xxvii] Ibid.

[xxviii] Technology. “Bitcoin: Does it really use more electricity than Ireland?”. BBC News. Accessed 14 December 2017.

[xxix] Vijai Maheshwari. “How Putin made me break up with bitcoin.” Politico. Accessed on 07 November, 2017.

[xxx] Norbert Michel and Gerald Dwyer. “Bits and Pieces: The Digital World of Bitcoin Currency.” Heritage Foundation Accessed on 11 November, 2017.

[xxxi] Thomas Sowell, Basic economics: a citizen's guide to the economy, (New York, Basic Books, 2004) p 349

[xxxii] Damon McCoy. “Follow the Bitcoin to Find the Victims of Human Trafficking.” New York University Press Release. Accessed on 12 November 2017.

[xxxiii] GEN Raymond Thomas. “Statement before the Senate Armed Services Committee.” U.S. Special Operations Command. Accessed on 20 November 2017.

[xxxiv] Madhvi Mavadiya. “Putin And Ethereum: A Match Made In Fintech” Forbes. Accessed on 16 November 2017.

[xxxv] Trading Economics. Money Supplies by Country. Accessed on 21 November 2017.,,,

[xxxvi] Thomas Sowell, Basic economics: a citizen's guide to the economy, (New York, Basic Books, 2004) p 349

[xxxvii] Michael Kirk. “The Putin Files, Andrei Soldatov.” PBS, Frontline. Accessed on 07 November.

[xxxviii] Olga Kharif and Camila Russo. “Global Regulators Play Bitcoin Whack-a-Mole as Demand Explodes.” Bloomberg. Accessed on 11 November, 2017.

[xxxix] Alec Ross, The Industries of the Future, (New York, Simon and Schuster, 2016) p 104

[xl] Lorenzo Fioramonti, “Bitcoin is already playing a key role in the unsteady financial systems of some developing markets.” Quartz, Africa. Accessed on 17 November 2017.

[xli] Paul Vigna and Michael Casey, The Age of Cryptocurrency, (New York, Picador, St. Martins Press, 2015) 2

[xlii] Norbert Michel and Gerald Dwyer. Bits and Pieces: The Digital World of Bitcoin Currency. Heritage Foundation. September 16, 2015. Accessed at Accessed on 11 November, 2017.

[xliii] Paul Vigna and Michael Casey, The Age of Cryptocurrency, (New York, Picador, St. Martins Press, 2015) 5

[xliv] U. S. Department of the Army, Field Manual 3-24 Counterinsurgency (Washington, DC, 17 January 2006) 3-11

[xlv] Damon McCoy. Follow the Bitcoin to Find the Victims of Human Trafficking. New York University Press Release. August 15, 2017. Accessed on 12 November 2017.

[xlvi] Logan Nye. “How 8 Countries Are Preparing for War With Russia.” Real Clear Defense. Accessed on 29 November 2017.

[xlvii] U. S. Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Information Operations. Joint Publication (JP) 3-13, (Washington, DC: CJCS, 04 January 2012) p x

[xlviii] Alec Ross, The Industries of the Future, (New York, Simon and Schuster, 2016) p 111: David Henry and Anna Irrera, “JP Morgan's Dimon says bitcoin 'is a fraud”. Reuters. Accessed on 09 November, 2017.

[xlix] Chris Telley. “Big Data, Local Advantage: Why ‘Economic Media’ Networks Matter.” Small Wars Journal. Accessed on 09 November, 2017.


About the Author(s)

Lieutenant Colonel Chris Telley serves as an Army information operations officer and is detailed to the U.S. State Department. His past writing covers emerging technology, competitive influence, and multi-domain operations. He tweets at @chris_telley.



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