Ukraine marks a turning point in cyber warfare – POLITICO


Cristina Vanberghen is a professor at the Free University of Brussels and a senior expert at the European Commission, specializing in digitization, new technologies and foreign policy.

Most wars – from Troy to Dien Bien Phu and from Waterloo to Yemen – are based on confusion. And Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine was also accompanied – if not preceded – by an onslaught of cyber “confusion” around the world, as the Kremlin deployed cyber warfare tactics across and against governmental and private actors to achieve its objectives. military and political objectives.

Moscow’s cyberattacks and cyberoperations have multiple goals, such as damaging infrastructure, dismantling government software, and carrying out destructive espionage and assaults targeting individuals both in Ukraine and around the world. A recent report notes that 90% of Russian attacks detected over the past year targeted NATO member countries, while 48% of those attacks targeted IT companies based in member countries.

This method of warfare in turn raises new questions: when does a cyberattack become large enough to represent a declaration of war? And under what circumstances would a cyberattack against a NATO member constitute an act of war justifying collective defence? And what, if anything, should we read about NATO’s reluctance to discuss its role in cyber defense?

As the war continues, we can expect the Russian state and hackers to continue launching cyber operations to cripple those who oppose it and disable Ukraine’s energy, transportation and digital infrastructure. Cyber ​​warfare will be an increasingly important weapon in the absence of a solution to the conflict – and there are currently no conventional solutions at hand.

Indeed, we cannot accept at face value the Kremlin’s assertion that President Vladimir Putin is open to talks on a possible settlement of the conflict and that he believes in a diplomatic solution. In almost the same breath, presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov also said that Russia would not withdraw from Ukraine and that the refusal of the United States to recognize its “new territories” frustrated any potential compromise.

Nor can we credibly believe in negotiations or a diplomatic solution, because the interests of Russia and Ukraine are fundamentally irreconcilable. Ukraine’s unwavering goal is the liberation of its territories and the recognition of its pre-2014 borders. Meanwhile, Russia’s goal is nothing less than the elimination of the Ukrainian regime, the Russification of its population and the permanent occupation of at least its presently invaded territories – if not the whole country.

These differences are reflected in the characteristics of the two armies in the field. Ukrainian forces made up of individuals defending their territory, their freedoms and their way of life with admirable momentum; against a Russian army devoid of any rational reasoning for its war – a war based on a plan devoid of any non-military strategic calculation and utterly dismissive of diplomacy and notions of justice.

The threat of nuclear weapons reflects the Kremlin’s entry into a zone of tight-rope politics that borders on a form of delirium, and is only the presentation of a narrative contrary to the realities on the ground. In this regard, the recent mobilizations of Russian troops are another sign that it is losing, because conscription – even if it concerns reluctant minorities – represents an escalation of the conflict in conventional military terms, with more boots on field. An escalation that is reflected more broadly in the words and posture of the Russian regime.

So, even if victory for Russia seems virtually impossible, there is no sign that this conflict will end. And the only position the West can have is to continue supporting Ukraine with more military aid and reconstruction funding, while Russia continues to sow confusion.

Confusing is a proven tool and tactic of warfare, and cyber warfare represents the new frontier in this field. It begins to blur the distinction between peace and conflict, and increasingly takes on the colors of the latter. As such, cyber warfare is likely to soon become a legitimate domain of NATO operations, comparable to conventional theaters and methods of warfare on land, sea, air and space.

Its growing role in the war in Ukraine is approaching the point where it could soon justify the triggering of the Treaty’s Article 5 engagement on collective defense – which would be a game-changer.

The political decision of the 30 NATO member countries clearly defining a specific cyberwar as requiring a collective response is much to contemplate. However, the current situation will remain unclear and undefined as long as there is no precision or consensus on the threshold to determine aggression.

An optimistic view would be that the uncertainty remains a sufficient deterrent for cyber groups not to launch more destructive activities – even if they recognize the military advantages of cyber warfare as a support to conventional warfare. According to this thesis, the type of cyberattacks deployed in the current war – as a weapon of authoritarian states – risks creating ever more negative propaganda for the Russian regime and a further erosion of public support for its military and political goals.

This means that the war in Ukraine could, indeed, mark the starting point of a new world order based on an open international cyberspace, changing our perspective on national sovereignty as countries find new ways to respond to cyberattacks. . And Russia’s sudden moves in Minsk and Beijing are signs of desperation and pleas for support that seem to be falling on deaf ears.


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