In recent years, it’s begun to seem like cyber attacks from national level opponents are just a way of life. Reports of Russian efforts to gain access to the U.S. electrical grid or Chinese operatives seeking technical data on the U.S. defense apparatus have become so familiar that the stories themselves no longer draw a great deal of public interest. With no shots fired and no forces crossing any borders, a form of warfare is already raging — with digital security professionals squaring off against offensive operations aimed at the United States, and of course, others likely launching American offensives of our own.
This new battlespace is widely considered to be part of a new strategy commonly referred to as “hybrid warfare.” The basic tenants of hybrid warfare are fairly simple: it’s a blurring of the lines between conventional warfare, political and social manipulation, cyber efforts, and irregular warfare of the sort you might expect out of highly trained special operations troops. Russia used this approach in their 2014 military annexation of Crimea: combining fake news reports, social media manipulation efforts, public denials, mercenary forces and conventional soldiers in such a manner that allowed the Kremlin to actively deny what they were doing in the public sphere until it was too late. The world watched as Russia steamed into Ukraine, then they watched on TV as Russian officials like President Vladimir Putin said that they weren’t, and the ensuing confusion was enough to allow the hybrid “invasion” to carry on unabated.
This same method of taking action and then merely denying it has become the modus operandi for Russia’s more nefarious foreign policies all across the globe. There is no doubt that Russia played an active role in trying to affect the 2016 American presidential election, just as there’s no doubt that they attempted to elicit a heightening of social and racial tensions among the U.S. populous that year and since. However, their concerted and bold-faced denials of those acts are enough to sew the seed of doubt in the minds of many. Couple those denials with a very active social media manipulation infrastructure and a few state-owned media outlets that purport their efforts to be objective journalism (TASS, RT, Sputnik) and you have all the elements of a hybrid warfare campaign, short of the physical violence.
This trend forces us, as American voters, to consider how our nation is engaged with this (not exactly new, but growing) brand of warfare. If we agree that weaponizing information, hacking into secure elements of national infrastructure, working to manipulate the perceptions of the public and then denying their involvement are all elements of the hybrid warfare doctrine, then we have to accept the idea that warfare in the 21st century doesn’t always begin or end with kinetic operations and if we’re willing to take this broader definition of warfare to its logical extreme, then in some respects, a war with Russia is already raging. However, just like with their military operations in Crimea, we remain confused and uncertain as a people — watching Russia steam in, listening to them deny it, and staying steadfast in our disinterest of the complexity.
It’s just easier to shout at each other on Twitter about today’s trending outrage.
To clarify, this piece is not proposing that we declare war on Russia, nor is it suggesting that we’re the next nation Russia hopes to annex territory from as they did in Ukraine just four years ago. The circumstances of our relationship with Russia are different: America is a far more powerful nation both militarily and diplomatically than Ukraine, and could not only resist but could likely decimate a Russian incursion into American territory. It’s crucial that America’s defense infrastructure recognizes Russia’s efforts as no different than those employed in Crimea, however, as the effort is no less nefarious, and the threat is no less real.
Russia is, in many ways, not the biggest threat to America’s supremacy on the global stage, but what they lack in economic power and military footprint they compensate for with a willingness to engage in direct social engineering, the creative use of public spaces in the digital sphere, and perhaps the single most effective form of Russian disinformation: issuing countless statements that often directly contradict one another in rapid succession until the conversation has become so confused that most merely stop trying. It sounds foolish or even simplistic — but it works. The Russian government regularly issues such ludicrous statements that you’d expect them to be laughed out of a polite diplomatic conversation, but they release so many, so often that eventually headlines about Russia lying again become nothing more than white noise against a sea of foreign policy analysis.
In the 21st Century, we’re faced with a new form of the classic “boy who cried wolf” tale, where the wolf is ever present, and the boy keeps shouting. Eventually, we stop listening to the boy. Eventually, we stop worrying about the wolf. The nature of the wolf hasn’t changed, nor has its intentions. It’s our perception that has.
This trend demands that we establish a new understanding of what America constitutes as a legitimate act of war, rather than merely an element of hybrid, or any other form of, warfare. There may indeed come a time when a bold Russian cyber offensive cripples a portion of the nation’s electrical infrastructure, or when Russian operatives release a banned nerve agent in a public space as we’ve seen in the United Kingdom. These acts are not invasions, no Russian tanks are crossing any borders, but they remain violent acts against a national people. Eventually, we may be faced with having to offer a kinetic response to a cyber attack or an unclaimed offensive against specific American individuals. When that day comes, we’ll have to decide what amount of damage to American property or people constitutes a legitimate act of war: Is it cutting the power to a region of the country? Is it just positioning themselves to be able to do so when the time comes? When do the bits and pieces of an offensive strategy coalesce into something that warrants a military response?
In the years to come, the answer to that specific question may dictate the scale of the conflicts we face. Do we meet nations like Russia on the hybrid battlefield, coupling our clandestine efforts with media manipulation and bold-faced denials, or do we continue to engage in traditional diplomacy and tactics? If and when the day comes that Russia’s cyber efforts result in a large-scale loss of money, property, or lives on American soil, they will almost certainly deny it in the public sphere and work to manipulate the American public into believing it was our own government (as we’ve seen in the U.K. recently).
We need to ask ourselves before that day: at what point does cyber warfare, perception warfare, and information warfare drop the qualifying terms and transition into simple, bloody, old-fashioned war? Because having the debate in real time, as the lights begin to go out, may be too late.
Featured image: Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures while speaking during his news conference after the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit in Qingdao in eastern China’s Shandong Province, Sunday, June 10, 2018. Putin says counter-terrorism efforts are a priority for a regional grouping led by Moscow and Beijing. Addressing Sunday’s summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Qingdao, China, Putin said a new agreement approved by the SCO spells out plans for joint-anti-terror efforts for the next three years. The SCO includes China, Russia, four ex-Soviet Central Asian nations, India, and Pakistan. | AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko