As diplomatic tensions between Russia and America continue to decline after the fallout over the Ukrainian crisis, Syria and the recent Black Sea incident, America has made a surprising public overture of rapprochement.
As of March 30th 2016, Russia and America will recommence a raft of bilateral agreements on cyber-security, that had been halted due to the cooling relations. Included in these agreements will be the implementation of a hotline between Russia and America to prevent an escalation of cyber security incidents and the signing of a non-aggression pact in the field of information technology.
Coming on the heels of a cybersecurity pact signed by Russia and China during May last year, it is far from a comprehensive agreement. Russia and Moscow, for example, agreed not to attack each other and mutually prevent the use of modern technology "for terrorist purposes" and "interference in internal affairs", as well as destabilizing "the internal political and socio-economic situation".
Britain and China have likewise created a cyber security agreement which they argue will lead to increased cooperation as have China and the United States.
Why the proliferation of these treaties? Quite simply it is because cyber warfare has emerged from the bedrooms of teenage hackers and criminal gangs to become one of the most impressive forms of covert soft power known in the modern world.
Attack of the Codes
Hitting public awareness in 2007 in Estonia with the three week long Distributed Denial-Of-Service (DDoS) attack against a number of divisions of the Estonian economy including the government, media, and financial institutions, Russia began using a combination of threats, cyber capabilities, proxies, and plausible deniability to harass those with whom they did not see eye to eye.
From there it has snowballed with incidents such as WikiLeaks, the Snowdon Papers, the Sony Hack and the Panama Papers demonstrating the reach of hackers globally. Events like the pre-Christmas attack on a Ukrainian power station, which left thousands of people freezing in the Ukrainian winter, illustrated their power.
Cyber-Warfare Now A Reality
Cyber warfare is now an ongoing threat for countries and multinationals around the globe. It enables aggressors to punish rivals or engage in terrorist activities, as in the case of Russia’s attack on the Ukraine or the suspected US actions to neutralise threats such as Iran’s nuclear program with plausible deniability and little domestic collateral damage.
This reality argues Dr. Philippa Malmgren, a former White House official and presidential advisor, has led to a situation where the three major powers are already involved in a cyber war.
“The difference to warfare of the past is that this is being conducted surreptitiously through cyberspace, rather than through traditional and conventional forms of weaponry.”
Trust No One
As each of the countries try to cooperate the problem appears multiply, despite the treaties and talk of cooperation, countries like Russia and China are not always prepared to play by the rules. Leaving countries like America and Britain to even the playing field.
The result is that no one trusts one another and instead the cyber war increases in its severity as countries engage in a steady stream of attacks and counter attacks, some coming just hours after they have signed cooperation treaties.
As described by J.J. Wirtz in a recent publication by the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence Cyber War in Perspective: Russian Aggression against Ukraine,
“ it seems an escalation in such intrusions is already underway. Russian state-sponsored hackers are believed to have recently compromised the US Department of State….. Unlike during previous intrusions linked to Russia, on this occasion the digital spies did not back out of the system once they were discovered, but fought back in order to maintain their foothold in the network”
Considering the difficulty in monitoring these intrusions and attacks it seems likely that cyber warfare will inevitably become a much utilised weapon in the new grab for international power. In order to count this governments will need to ramp up spending on cyber security, developing their cyber divisions which will hopefully lower the risks of infrastructure attacks and the chaos these will bring.
A version of this is published in The Vision Times