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The new face of 21st century war

Aaron Tilton
October 24, 2016

The hack of Russia’s Foreign Ministry website is just the latest attack in an ongoing information war between Moscow and Washington. Experts warn this is the new face of war in the 21st century.

Symbolbild Computer Hacker
Image: Reuters/Dado Ruvic

Russian newshounds went into high alert over the weekend as news sites pushed out their latest notification: "American hackers have defaced the official website of the Russian Foreign Ministry (MID)." Maria Zakharova, the ministry spokeswoman, was quoted in local media saying this was the work of 'professionals' and that an investigation was already underway. Russian social media users were quick to speculate that this was the start of the United States' threatened cyberattack on Russia in response to Moscow's alleged meddling in the US presidential election.

But soon enough the truth came to light: An American hacktivist and former soldier was behind the act of cyber vandalism. Posting on his private site, the hacktivist known under the pseudonym "the Jester," called it "… the cyber equivalent of driving by the Ruskie Embassy and flipping them the bird."  The Jester is a well-know figure in the so-called "gray hat" hacking scene. In the past he has targeted websites and chat services associated with jihadist groups and sought to muzzle actors accused of attempting to radicalize terrorist sympathizers.

In a statement posted on the Russian Foreign Ministry's own webpage, the Jester said he defaced the site in response to Russia's supposed involvement in several high-profile data leaks involving the US election and Friday's denial-of-service, or DDoS, attack which limited access to many popular US-based sites. MID spokeswomen Zakharova quickly downplayed the hack, saying in a post on Facebook that the Jester had defaced an older website that her ministry was no longer actively using.

However, the incident only highlights how the diplomatic nadir between the US and Russia is increasingly spilling over into the digital world.

Politically motivated hacks

The political landscape of the US has been dogged by several high-profile hacks targeting the Democratic Party and its candidate for president, Hillary Clinton. The US government places the blame for the leaks squarely on Moscow's doorstep, accusing it of attempting to skew the results of next month's vote. So far, Moscow has been cagey about its involvement in the leaks. Russian Foreign Secretary Sergei Lavrov declined to deny involvement in the scandal, saying only he had yet to see evidence his government was behind the leaks.

USA Joe Biden Rede
Vice President Biden warned of a US counter-cyberattackImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/N. Ut

Despite Russian obfuscation, US Vice President Joe Biden fueled speculation that the Obama administration was planning a cyber counter-attack, telling broadcaster NBC's "Meet the Press" news program: "We're sending a message. We have the capacity to do it."

According to Dr. Mark Galeotti, a senior research fellow at the Institute of International Relations in Prague, the United States is in a delicate position. Whereas the alleged Russian hacks were designed to be difficult to trace, he says, "this is about deterrence… The Americans are in the opposite situation. They want no ambiguity. They want to deliver a message to the Russians. If you continue to do this there will be strikes."

US cyber deterrence

But the question remains: can the United States stage effective cyber deterrence? One approach could be to subtly manipulate Russia's online infrastructure in order to demonstrate the extent of the US' cyber warfare capacity. According to Dr. Marcel Dickow, a cyber security expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, the US has a host of potential targets.

"Technically speaking, they could target everything from news sites to the internal networks of the Russian government or the Russian military or even Russian companies like major industrial firms or IT infrastructure," he said.

However, Dickow warned such an attack could lead to an uncontrolled escalation.

Another approach would be to pass on illicitly obtained information to Russia's press and NGO community in a similar fashion to the leaks targeting the Democratic Party. But if American retaliatory measures were confined to releasing embarrassing or politically sensitive information about Russia's ruling elite, it is questionable how much effect that would have on the ground. Russia's media landscape is notoriously resistant to western criticism of the Kremlin, and rumors of the political class' secret wealth have long been the topic of public speculation.

Mark Galeotti, britischer Russland-Experte
Galeotti: 'Russia is not as vulnerable as the West'Image: Mark Galeotti

"Russia is not as vulnerable as the West," Galeotti said. "It's hard to imagine [information] that would stun or shock people on the streets of Omsk."

For many outside observers, it would seem that Biden's warning marks a new escalation in the information war between Moscow and Washington. However, many experts agree it only represents a growing awareness among the public of a long standing conflict.

"Russia is engaged in political warfare with the West," said Galeotti. "Information is a critical instrument in that. Be it official propaganda, [broadcaster] Russia Today, online troll farms, or leaking information in the hopes that western media will run with it."

It is a sentiment echoed by Dickow, who says recent attempts by Russian media to foster anti-immigrant sentiment in Germany by spreading erroneous rumors about a supposed rape and abduction of a Russian girl demonstrate the extent of the new information war.

"It was a test," said Dickow. "Not a cyber attack in the traditional sense but a test of their ability to influence [other countries'] internal politics. Be it with cyber attacks or with disinformation campaigns, it's just a question of content and instrument. I'm certain we'll see more of it."

As is Galeotti. He warns we are entering an age of more open conflict on the international stage, saying the looming information war between the US and Washington "… is the new face of warfare in the 21st century."