The World Today for January 25, 2023

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The Virtual Front

RUSSIA/ UKRAINE

In the 1990s, many world leaders failed to understand the threat that cyberattacks posed to their governments, societies and economies, argued journalist Matt Potter in a recent interview with ABC News. Today, the war between Russia and Ukraine has demonstrated how cyberwarfare is inextricably linked to physical violence in contemporary military conflicts.

The Russia-Ukraine war has been a turning point for cyberwarfare, University of Brussels professor in European Union policies Cristina Vanberghen recently opined in Politico. The big question, Vanberghen postulated, was determining when a cyberattack should be considered to be equivalent to a physical attack on a country. Russia, after all, is frequently launching cyberattacks against NATO countries and corporations.

Accordingly, Ukraine has asked the International Court of Justice to consider whether Russia’s cyberattacks on civilian targets are war crimes, a potential first in world history. That request is not a slam dunk, however.

“To be a war crime, it has to be totally directed at civilians, without any realistic possibility of military advantage,” Paul Rosenzweig, a cybersecurity expert, told the Washington Post. “The Russian argument would be, ‘By degrading their economy, we’re increasing the possibility that they’ll sue for peace, and that’s a significant military advantage.’”

Russia’s cyberattacks against Ukraine, however, have failed to realize any major benefits to the invader’s war effort – even though, as Wired magazine wrote, those attacks have been “fast, dirty, and relentless.”

Sanctions on Russian technology, poor planning and other incompetence could explain these weak results. Like other forms of force projection, cyberwarfare requires investment and training amid broader policies in order to create “ecosystems” that produce hackers and strategies for using digital technologies to hobble an enemy’s infrastructure, disrupt financial systems, or sow misinformation and discord, the Brookings Institution wrote.

Integrating cyber capabilities into on-the-ground military planning is also a new and tricky challenge for militaries. At the beginning of the invasion, for example, Russian hackers shut down US-based Viasat’s satellite communication systems, severely hobbling Ukrainian communications, the Economist noted. Experts estimated that the Russians had planned that cyberattack for more than a year.

But, as a commentator in Modern Diplomacy noted, Ukraine had developed formidable cyber defenses over the years as they have dealt with successive waves of Russian cyber incursions. Western technical help has been instrumental in repelling Russian cyberattacks, too, added the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

It’s sad that humankind’s worst intentions have found uses for our most innovative technologies.

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

The Dreamy Union

BRAZIL-ARGENTINA

Argentina and Brazil are mulling the creation of a common currency for the two nations, an ambitious plan that has been met with skepticism from economists, CNBC reported Tuesday.

The proposal was unveiled during a meeting in Argentina this week between Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and his Argentinian counterpart Alberto Fernández.

Lula said the common currency would be designed for trade and transactions between the neighbors, which are also Latin America’s largest economies. He added that the currency could later be adapted by other members of Mercosur, South America’s major trading bloc.

The two leaders explained that the goal is to reduce the dependence on the US dollar and other foreign currencies, which they describe as harmful, the Associated Press noted.

Still, details of the plan remain unclear, as the currency does not yet have a name or deadline. Brazil’s Finance Minister Fernando Haddad noted that the two nations were not looking for a euro-style monetary union.

Analysts quickly shot down the proposal as “pie in the sky,” noting that there were major distinctions between the two economies while highlighting the rapid shift of political winds in the region.

Argentina has been experiencing economic issues with an inflation rate last year of 95 percent and a depreciating currency. Nearly four in 10 Argentinians live in poverty.

Brazil has been faring better but saw its inflation rate in 2022 exceeding the ceiling set by the central bank for a second straight year. The country’s development prospects are still bleak, and it hasn’t had a primary budget surplus since 2013.

Observers added that the initiative appears to be more about politics, as Fernández will seek reelection this year amid ongoing economic woes.

The Long Road to Accountability

LEBANON

A Lebanese judge charged a number of politicians and high-ranking officials this week with homicide for their alleged role in the port explosion that rocked Lebanon’s capital Beirut in 2020, Reuters reported.

On Monday, Judge Tarek Bitar abruptly resumed an investigation that had been stalled for more than a year due to political opposition and legal challenges filed by top officials he was set to question.

The judge has charged former Prime Minister Hassan Diab and some of his former officials with homicide with probable intent. Diab was Lebanon’s prime minister at the time of the explosion.

On Aug. 4, 2020, an explosion ripped through Beirut that destroyed multiple buildings and killed more than 200 people. The blast was caused by hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate that had been stored at Beirut’s port in poor conditions since its unloading in 2013. So far, no senior official has been held to account.

Bitar has also called for the questioning of prosecutor general Ghassan Oweidat and Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, the head of Lebanon’s domestic intelligence at the time of the incident. It was not immediately clear what the officials are accused of.

Judicial sources said Bitar has been scheduled to question 15 people in the next month.

They added that the judge was able to resume work on the basis of a legal resolution to the challenge from the plaintiffs.

Bitar’s investigation froze in early 2022 following major pushback from Lebanon’s political factions, including Iranian-backed Hezbollah.

Hezbollah has campaigned against Bitar for questioning its supporters, and it has also accused the US of interfering in the investigation.

Analysts believe that because the judiciary is divided on whether Bitar should be permitted to restart his investigation, some of his rulings may go unimplemented.

Egalité

FRANCE

France remains a “very sexist” society, according to a report by a government-created equality watchdog, even as the country has made strides in gender equality five years into the #MeToo movement, the Associated Press reported.

The High Council for Equality between Women and Men released its annual report this week, calling for a national “emergency plan” to tackle what it described as “the massive, violent and sometimes lethal consequences” of sexism.

The report particularly raised the alarm about the double-digit rates of sexual violence reported by women: Surveys showed that one-third of women reported being harassed by their partners to perform unwanted sexual acts, while one in seven women said men had forced sex on them.

Sylvie Pierre-Brossolette, the council’s president, voiced special concern about sexism among younger men “bathed in social media, digital (technology), pornography.”

The council proposed a 10-point plan that includes a call for tougher regulation of online content, making anti-sexism training mandatory in the workplace, as well as prohibiting advertisements that claim some children’s toys are for boys and others for girls.

Despite the report, France has been making remarkable progress in women’s rights, say analysts: Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne is the second woman to hold the post and parliament’s lower house also has its first-ever woman president, Yaël Braun-Pivet.

The government has increased police resources to combat domestic violence and has made free birth control available to all women under the age of 25.

Lawmakers are also moving to safeguard legal abortion rights in France, the newswire wrote.

DISCOVERIES

Ride the Lightning

Since they were developed in the 18th century, lightning rods have been shielding homes and buildings from dangerous charges from the sky.

These giant, metal structures attract lightning and safely carry the powerful charge to the ground.

Now, scientists have come up with giant laser beams that can replace the archaic rods, CNET reported.

In a new study, researchers wrote about their efforts to guide lightning with a laser beam on top of Switzerland’s Säntis mountain at an altitude of over 8,000 feet.

In 2021, the research team installed a fast-pulsing laser – about the size of a car – next to a telecommunications tower on Säntis. Known as the Laser Lightning Rod (LLR), the device can generate channels of ionized air with charged particles that can be used to guide lightning along its beam.

The picosecond laser, which fires at roughly 1,000 pulses per second, was used over more than six hours of thunderstorm activity between July and September of that year.

During those hours of operation, the team discovered that the LLR redirected the paths of four upward-lightning discharges, according to the Independent.

In one instance, clear skies allowed high-speed cameras to film one specific strike in great detail. The lightning strike appeared to track the laser for about 165 feet.

Researchers explained that the study could improve lightning protection systems for key infrastructure such as power plants, airports and launchpads.

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