Much has been said about the potential dangers of a cyber war. This type of attack could be formidably destructive and is extremely difficult to track to its source. Superiority in this domain offers a great advantage, making it possible to knock out the enemy’s critical infrastructure sites and inflicting damage comparable to a massive nuclear attack. Just imagine the electricity grids, one of the softer targets, out of commission and all the lights out and the computers dead! In 2016 the North Atlantic Alliance officially declared cyberspace the fourth domain of war.
NATO is beefing up its cybersecurity and plans to develop an offensive cyber potential. The bloc has regularly conducted a Cyber Coalition exercise ever since 2008. In 2017, NATO defense ministers agreed to set up a Cyber Operations Center to integrate the growing cyber warfare capabilities for both offensive and defensive operations. The new unit will be an operational complement to NATO’s Tallinn-based Cooperative Cyber Defense Centre of Excellence (CCDCOE), which was established in 2008 to act as a hub for NATO’s cyber defense, and it is growing more powerful as more members of the bloc join the project. Added to that is the alliance’s network operations center and computer emergency response teams (CERTs). Exercises, such as Locked Shield 2018, are held regularly. The fictional foe is always Russia.
In April, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), alongside the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), issued a joint alert about malicious cyber activity “carried out by the Russian government.” All these moves have been made at a time when the Western media is busy launching attacks aimed at painting Russia as a villain. To be sure, Moscow is being accused of hacking and other misdeeds, but what if it was a non-state actor who was responsible? The US sanctions and whatever else is being done under the auspices of NATO — all those efforts will go down the drain, with the real perpetrator going scot-free! Attacks will happen again.
On Sept. 14, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated in his interview with Axios that the alliance might invoke Article 5 on collective defense, if it decides that Russia has carried out a cyberattack against one of its members. On Sept. 20, the UK announced its decision to step up cyber warfare efforts against Russia, with the Ministry of Defense and GCHQ jointly creating a new £250m joint task force of up to 2,000 digital warriors. The new unit would represent a near four-fold increase in manpower focused on offensive cyber operations.
In late September, the new US National Cybersecurity Strategy (NCS), which expands the authority for launching offensive operations, took effect after being signed by President Trump. It actually calls for an offensive response against any nation the administration chooses to target. “America created the Internet and shared it with the world. Now, we must make sure to secure and preserve cyberspace for future generations,” said the president in his introduction to the document. Russia and China are listed as the biggest threats. The publication of the strategy came on the heels of other major movements in cyberspace, such as elevating the US Cyber Command to full unified command status and delegating certain responsibilities from the president to the DoD, tasking it with conducting cyber operations abroad.
Much has been said about the need to work out certain rules to prevent an “unfettered arms race” and “combat operations” in this domain. The truth is that Moscow has called for a broad international effort to prevent the militarization of cyberspace. It wants the issue to become part of a broader Russia-NATO and OSCE agenda. Russian-US cooperation would be a step in the right direction, especially now that the efforts of the United Nations Group of Governmental Experts (UNGGE) have been stymied.
In 2017, Moscow and Washington were engaged in talks on creating a working group. The idea was suggested by Russia President Vladimir Putin. Both nations could join efforts to tackle this critical issue as allies. The US missed that opportunity. President Trump rejected the initiative under pressure from the Republicans.
On Feb. 27 a 17-member Russian team arrived in Switzerland for a two-day stay to discuss cyber security with its US counterparts. The negotiators were informed upon their arrival that the US delegation was not coming. The talks had been torpedoed by the Americans. No excuse or explanation was ever offered, either before or after the event. Here is an example of diplomacy “a l'Americaine” for all to see.
If not for that US move, the first-ever non-aggression pact in cyberspace might have become a reality. With Moscow acting as an intermediary, Beijing could have joined the process, with many other states to follow. But that opportunity was missed and the US is to blame.
It is possible to reach an agreement on restrictions as well as rules of engagement. Russia and China signed one in 2015. That same year, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization launched an initiative aimed at tackling cybersecurity on a global level. The West refused to discuss it.
It seems to have been forgotten now that the US and Russia worked out a, a package of agreements in 2013 that included the exchange of data and establishment of emergency response teams. The US pulled the plug on that dialog because of the 2014 events in Ukraine.
There is no international law regulating cyber operations. Nothing governs activities in this domain. There is no law, no control, no rules, and no international mechanism that would make it possible to investigate, prosecute, or punish the guilty. But everything is possible. The Russian-US think tanks have offered suggestions about bilateral cooperation in cybersecurity. They could become the basis for a bilateral and then a multilateral agreement, along with other ideas on controlling cyber operations.
Cyberspace could theoretically become a sphere of cooperation, and that process could gradually spread to encompass other areas. It could also become the war domain that NATO envisions, with an unfettered arms race pushing everyone to the brink of conflict. Russia has tried to avoid the latter scenario, but the US has made a different choice.