A group of events in the past few weeks signal that Russia, China and Iran are entering a new phase in their cyber warfare capabilities, a trend that could spill over into the Israeli- Iranian conflict.
News reports on last Monday gave more detailed accounts of the limited cyber warfare operations that Russia has reportedly been conducting against Ukraine since its incursion into Crimea.
Two weeks ago, there were reports that China elevated its commitment to cyber warfare defense and general operations with an announcement of President Xi Jinping personally heading a new task force on the issue.
Three senior Iranian officials in recent weeks brandished threats of unleashing newly potent cyber warfare capabilities against the Islamic Republic’s adversaries, either explicitly or implicitly targeting the US and Israel.
Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council said it was hit heavily by cyber attacks designed to bring down its service and hobble defense responses to Russia’s incursion.
Ukrinform, the state news agency, and the mobile telephones of various members of Ukraine’s parliament were also targeted.
This could be a sign that what appeared to be attempts by the US (and possibly Israel) to advertise to their cyber adversaries in February 2013 (by announcing new, conservative guidelines) that they would carry out fewer offensive operations if their adversaries did the same has not gotten their adversaries to back down.
On the other hand, none of this was directed against the US and it appears that Russia has so far refrained from unleashing its full cyber fury, as it did against Georgia in 2008 when it brought down and defaced virtually every Georgian government agency website, bank, blog and many other private sector sites, with some sites not recovering for 10 days.
The Jerusalem Post recently interviewed Col. Sharon Afek, formerly deputy head of the IDF’s legal division, who wrote a 149-page treatise on cyber warfare law – the first treatise of that comprehensiveness by a military lawyer of his rank and stature.
While Afek did not say so explicitly, among his conceptual approaches appeared to be following the US lead on signaling Israel’s willingness to be more conservative in launching offensive cyber operations.
If the US did not get its adversaries into a sort of cyber ceasefire, then with many observers now considering Russia an adversary of the US once again and both the US and Russia exploring ways to indirectly pressure the other’s behavior, a next step could be an increase in cyber attacks (as this story goes to press there are early reports of a cyber attack on NATO, likely from Russia or Russian supporters) and spying by Russia on the US and the West.
While Beijing’s announcement of Jinping’s involvement in a task force was presented mostly as a defensive maneuver, it may also signal Chinese intent to use further cyber operations against some of its neighbors and those who interfere.
In November, China declared a new air defense zone in the East China Sea as a clear effort to take actions toward its goal of placing certain islands, over which it has a dispute with Japan, under its sovereignty.
If China wants to increase the cost for Japan and for the West of resisting its will on the issue, cyber operations are an obvious method, especially since in 2013 it showed that it could do so and since proving the involvement of a nation in cyber attacks is difficult.
In recent weeks, the US, Israel and others threatened Iran with undefined consequences if it did not agree to certain redlines in the negotiations over its presumed nuclear weapons program.
Tehran responded with the regular rejections of “threats,” but, also, three senior officials: Gen. Mohammad Aqakishi, commander of the information technology department at the Iranian’s military’s General Staff, Chief of Staff Gen. Hassan Firouzabadi and Supreme Ruler Ayatollah Ali Khameini, all issued renewed threats about Iranian cyber capabilities.
These threats are no longer viewed as theoretical since the US believes that Iran successfully hacked many of its major banks and an unclassified network of the US Navy and Marine Corp over the past two years.
As negotiations over the nuclear program get heated, and Russia and China provide more examples of using cyber attacks without any significant penalty, Israel, which has already also experienced recent cyber attacks, could find itself on the receiving end more often.
The US and Israel appear to understand the stakes.
While both nations are making cuts in many traditional elements of military power, both are increasing their budgets for cyber operations.
At the same time, Afek’s recent treatise signaled Israel’s move to better influence the conduct and rules, official and unofficial, that nations observe in the realm of cyber warfare.