In the past decade the Russian government has mounted more than a dozen significant cyber attacks against foreign countries, sometimes to help or harm a specific political candidate, sometimes to sow chaos, but always to project Russian power.
Starting in 2007, the Russians attacked former Soviet satellites like Estonia, Georgia, and Ukraine, and then branched out to Western nations like the U.S. and Germany. U.S. intelligence officials and cyber experts say a strategy that pairs cyber attacks with on-line propaganda was launched by Russian intelligence a decade ago and has been refined and expanded ever since, with Putin's blessing. Russia has shut down whole segments of cyber space to punish or threaten countries.
Mike McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, says there is a bottom line to the pattern of hacking.
"For years now, the Kremlin has looked for ways to disrupt democracies, to help the people that they like to come to power and to undermine the credibility of the democratic process," said McFaul. Russia also seeks to weaken the European Union and NATO.
Stefan Meister, who has written extensively on Russian security strategies for the German Council of Foreign Relations, calls the attacks, which often include fake news, "a security strategy, not a media strategy."
"It is a growing policy that's strong and successful and they're getting bolder," Meister told NBC News. "They are risk takers. Putin is a risk taker, who thinks, 'If this doesn't work, we'll do something else.'"
A chronology developed by NBC News from U.S. intelligence sources shows Russia was involved in the following attacks:
Scott Borg, president of U.S. Consequences Unit, a cybersecurity firm that tracks Russian attacks, says that even as Russia's ambition grows it also acts on a much smaller scale. Said Borg, "They have tried to influence local elections in three or four eastern European countries as well as Germany."
The variety of the attacks does not surprise Meister of the German Council of Foreign Relations. He says the Russians tailor the attacks to the circumstances of each country.
"I think our politicians still underestimate the Russian activities," he added, saying protection against cyber attacks still doesn't have the priority it should.
Despite U.S. intelligence's belief that Russian hacks of the U.S. election were aimed at helping Trump or spreading doubt about the outcome, Meister thinks there is a simpler explanation: The Russians just revel in it.
"Their successful hacking and influencing -- we are frightened by that and that makes them happy," said Meister.
Meister and Borg also believe the rise in Russian cyber attacks has been encouraged by the most powerful men in Russia, pointing to 2012 papers by Vladimir Putin and Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the head of the military. Putin wrote an article in 2012 called "Russia in a Changing World" that advocated using a "complex of tools and methods for achieving foreign policy goals without deploying weapons." The piece called the internet and social media "effective tool[s]."
Around that same time, said Borg, Russia more effectively organized its cyber efforts, increasingly using its intelligence services to do the job rather than contracting with cyber gangs.
Both Meister and Borg believe Russia sees its cyber effort as a response to Western pressure and as an effective weapon for a nation that knows its conventional military arsenal of tanks, planes and ships is outmatched.
As a senior U.S. intelligence official told NBC News, "Nukes may give them status but cyber gives them a usable strategic capacity, potential for active measures."
"It's pragmatic," said Borg. "If they can put in a good effort, even if they don't have a good shot at winning, they'll do it. The benefits are so great they are willing to take risks. If you can greatly diminish NATO or undermine U.S. relations with Europe, it's worth it to them."