Fighting a war without being at war

Cyber-warfare is not replacing conventional warfare, but becoming an integral part of the military toolbox to be used in hybrid-warfare, but - so far, more for disruption than destruction, as Jarno Limnéll explains.

Jarno Limnéll, professor of cyber-security, Aalto University
Jarno Limnéll, professor of cyber-security, Aalto University

Cyber-warfare is a hot topic. The evolution of warfare both follows and contributes to the evolution of society and therefore cyber-warfare should be understood as something innate in our contemporary cyber-dependent societal practices.

The problem for analysis is that precedents of cyber-warfare are few. At the same time nation-states are developing more sophisticated cyber-capabilities while the cyber and physical worlds are increasingly intertwining and “the playbook” on how to use cyber-operations in a war or a conflict remains vague.

Many have been watching the Russo-Ukrainian war in the expectation that it would be the first real fully-fledged cyber-battlefield. Although an increase in cyber-activities has been reported throughout the war, prominent cyber-operations with destructive physical effects have not occurred. "Pure cyber-war", which would take place only in the digital environment, has not been seen in Ukraine and will hardly ever be seen anywhere either. On the other hand, it is unlikely we shall see war, crisis, or conflict without exploitation of the digital environment – cyber-instruments – as an integral part of other military activities. This is exactly what has happened in Ukraine. Cyber-operations have been one tool in the “political-military toolbox” of hybrid warfare between Ukraine and Russia. We must not turn a blind eye to this development.

Ukraine offers a glimpse into the type of hybrid warfare that we in the West are preparing for: battles in which traditional land forces dovetail with cyber-attackers to degrade and defeat an enemy. It also illustrates the difficulties that nations face in identifying and defending against cyber-attackers. Cyber-operations are well suited to the political-military hybrid environment in Ukraine. With hybrid warfare, we are facing a substantial change in military operations and in our perceptions of war. The boundary between actual military warfare and other methods of exercising power is becoming blurred, and the capabilities of cyber-warfare are becoming increasingly important. It is now possible to fight a war without actually being at war and cyber is a key element in this development. In addition the distinction between legitimate and illegal activity is becoming increasingly blurred.  It should be also taken into account that wired citizens can be affected by cyber-attacks just as much as network defenders and national security decision-makers.

During the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war we have witnessed a wide range of exploitations of the cyber-domain, which have served Russia´s strategic objectives. This demonstrates that cyber-warfare is very unlikely to happen in isolation; rather it is integrated into how nations assert power, potentially using any and all means possible. It seems also unlikely at the moment that standalone cyber-operations could trigger a conventional war even if, for example, NATO declared that Article 5 could be invoked in the case of a cyber-attack with effects comparable to those of a conventional armed attack.

The role of “little green men” in the Russo-Ukrainian war has been widely discussed. The cyber-domain has offered  "little green bytes" providing the same kind of projection of power. An aspect that complicates cyber-warfare and its legal evaluation is that cyber-operations have been often conducted by non-state actors, whose status and affiliation are not always clear. A special feature in Russo-Ukrainian cyber-warfare has been the role of non-state “proxy” hacker groups. Some of these have acted on their own account, some are likely to have been through the guidance of government. Political incentives for states to use proxies can be summed up by the concept of “plausible deniability”. The Russian government has denied links with proxy activity. The role of non-state actors in future wars and conflicts will likely be intensified even further. States are increasingly intentionally outsourcing their cyber-operations. The principle is well suited to hybrid warfare.

In the light of the Ukrainian experience it seems more likely that cyber-operations in future wars and conflicts  (even those which are physically destructive) will be deployed to shape and condition the battlespace rather than as decisive activities in their own right. In future wars and conflicts as well as the skirmishes that precede them policymakers must expect the use of cyber-capabilities as a disruptor or force multiplier, deployed in conjunction with more conventional kinetic weaponry. Undoubtedly future wars will be messy and in this respect, it does not matter whether these wars will be “cyber-wars” or not – they will retain the same characteristics that wars have always had, but they will also have elements that the world has never seen before.

It is likely that Russia possess the capabilities to launch strategic (physcially destructive) cyber-attacks*, but the war in Ukraine demonstrates that Russia has exercised restraint, preferring to not show its full hand so as to prevent further escalation or simply to retain the capability for strategic surprise. Neither has Ukraine launched strategic cyber-attacks against Russian targets. The failure of either side to use destructive cyber-attacks in Ukraine indicates that the “Pandora´s Box” is not ready to be opened – yet.

Contributed by Jarno Limnéll, professor of cyber-security, Aalto University

*Editor's note: the article above was written ahead of  reports  that Russian hackers were blamed for power outages in Western Ukraine.