According to Ukraine’s security services, the situation in the Crimea is escalating in ways that have nothing to do with the deployment of military forces or the enacting of sanctions. It seems that members of the country’s parliament, regardless of political affiliation, are being targeted by cyberattacks. While no shots have been fired and no official declarations have been made, this revelation shows that the crisis has entered a new phase – one of cyberwarfare!
The attacks began two days ago, when members of Ukraine’s parliament, regardless of their party affiliation, saw their mobile communications blocked by equipment in Russia-controlled Crimea. According to Ukrainian security officials, the phone access has been blocked thanks to equipment installed “at the entrance to (telecom) Ukrtelecom in Crimea.” Ukraine’s security teams are now working on restoring service to the parliament members, though it’s not clear when the blockade will be removed.
Since that time, other cyber weapons have been detected, the latest of which is known as Snake (aka. “Ouroboros” after a serpent drawn from Greek mythology). This virus, which interestingly enough has the characteristics of both a product of the intelligence services and the military – it can both surveil and physically destroy computer networks – has been wrecking havoc on Ukrainian government systems.
By targeting the Ukrainian government with Ouroboros, the Russians are able to effectively engage in an aggressive, kinetic act without actually declaring war. This is due to the fact that in the digital age, cyber attacks fall into the category of being largely accepted as part of how countries exercise power. Much like how in the Cold War – where there were unspoken rules of what powers could do – these acts fall short of what is considered outright aggression.
However, this will not last forever. If certain capabilities of Ouroboros go live, then it will remain to be seen how the Ukraine reacts. And if the Russians deploy cyber weapons with network-destroying capabilities into other countries, there might well be one country that reacts as though the launch of a cyber weapon is no different than the launch of a missile. It all comes down to perception, and whether or not all sides see fit to limit themselves to cyber attacks.
Ultimately, the Cold War remained cold due to the fact that all sides were able to maintain an agreed upon set of rules. As long as no one stood to gain from the outbreak of full-scale war – due to the proliferation of nukes and the prospect of “mutually assured destruction” – everyone could expect to do what was in their own best interests. The absence of such a set of rules and treaties governing cyber weapons has not yet led to open hostilities, but it remains to be seen if they will hold.
One can only hope a modern day Russia, and Ukraine for that matter, can be expected to do what’s in their best interests as well and avoid an open state of war.