Will the Ukraine be the Stage for the First True Cyberwar?

Let’a face it. Putin has the West backed into a corner. What can they really do? They have no rationale to take military action. Besides, the US has no desire to get involved in any wars at the moment. Sure, the US can threaten trade sanctions, but Europe won’t go for it. They have more to lose than to gain since 33% of their gas comes from Russia. Russia holds all the cards. Threatening not to go to a meeting (the G8) doesn’t seem like it will cause Putin to lose any sleep. So that’s it. Putin will do what he did in Georgia. Take what he wants and leave. The West will bluster and “condemn in the strongest terms” but that’s about it…or is it?

When the Syrian government killed 3,000 of its own people with chemical weapons, they crossed President Obama’s red line. Before that line was erased by Russian diplomacy, there were heated discussions on how to proceed against the Syrian regime. During those discussions, the Pentagon and the National Security Agency presented a plan to launch a comprehensive cyber attack on the Syrian military and Assad’s command structure. According to sources, Obama initially welcomed the plan because it would avoid direct military action. However, upon further briefings, he had some doubts. Rumor has it that he didn’t like the idea of going down in history as the president who opened up a whole new type of warfare. He was also worried about the repercussions of counter cyber attacks which could affect US citizens. Later, Putin’s brokering of a Syrian chemical weapon destruction timetable took the decision out of Obama’s hands.

One thing is certain. If the situation warrants it, Russia will use cyberwar tactics against the Ukraine. How can we be so sure? Because they already used them during the South Ossetian War with Georgia in 2008. In these attacks, Russia basically took over a number of web sites and performed DDoS (Distributive Denial of Service) attacks on others, causing the Ukraine, Poland, and Estonia to put up mirror sites to help Georgia. One hacker claimed that the Russian government paid him to attack NATO computers. However, others investigating the incidents claimed that these attacks came from individuals or groups of individuals acting out of sympathy with the Russian government but without their support.

That’s what really distances cyberwarfare from traditional warfare. Individuals, working on their own can cause quite a lot of damage. If individuals work in groups, they increase their influence. The problem is that they may work at cross-purposes with each other or with nations launching their own attacks. At some point, it will become apparent that it will be to everyone’s benefit to organize and coordinate attacks. Thus, we will see the formation of cyber armies with generals, specialists, and cyber soldiers who operate out of their own homes.

What kind of attacks could we see? They are almost too numerous to mention. The sophisticated stuxnet virus showed how cyber attacks can take out machinery not even connected to the internet. In 2007, Israel blinded radar facilities with a cyber attack when they took out the site of a future nuclear power plant in Syria. Denial of service attacks could shut down banks, stock markets, news sites, and anything else that is deemed necessary to carry out a traditional war. Communications and electrical grids could be shut down. False commands could be given to military leaders. False news reports could stir up panic and confusion. However, focusing on big targets may not be even necessary. You don’t need to blow up a car to disable it. All you need to do is to remove one wire. Surgical strikes by individuals could be quite successful on their own.

As of this writing, there is no evidence that anyone has fired the first cyber shot. Of course, Russia could be using something related to its Uroburos Rootkit which can remain undetected until needed. Then again, the Ukraine is no pushover when it comes to IT savvy. As the Christian Science Monitor recently pointed out, “ the Ukraine has been called a haven for hackers and is said to harbor some of the most talented criminal hackers in the world”. Russia may simply be reluctant to start a cascade of interconnected events that could plunge the region, and even the world, into an all out cyberwar. Don’t forget that a cyber attack could be launched from anywhere in the world and be completely untraceable. Nations engaging in cyberwarfare will cloak their attacks in such a way that no one will ever be quite sure who launched them. Although most experts agree that the stuxnet attack on the Iranian nuclear centrifuges was coordinated by the US and Israel, no one could ever prove it. The first shot in a cyberwar could be fired from anywhere and have a dramatic, world-changing impact.

But, perhaps, Putin will realize that his macho display ritual isn’t bringing the results he expected. He will need to be given a way to back out without losing face. Possibly, he would agree to a UN brokered monitoring of areas where he feels Russian ethnic groups might be in danger of retribution. He can then claim that he achieved his objective and return home to lick his wounds.

However, whatever happens in this standoff, the age of cyberwarfare is here. Governments are funneling large amounts of money into preparing for it. This is why there has been a boom of interest in IT security. Governments are scrambling to find security solutions that are not vulnerable to penetration attacks. We are in a state of war readiness. One day we will wake up to the equivalent of a cyber Pearl Harbor and the world and warfare as we now know it will never be the same.


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