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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.