Previous cyber-incidents focused on information acquisition, network infiltration or precision strikes to sabotage the opposition. What are we seeing now are disruptive cyber-actions — with the apparent goals of signaling capability, disrupting normal systems and demonstrating the instability of Western democratic models.
Ransom is not the issue
A number of analysts described the Petya/NotPetya incident of June and the WannaCry event in May as ransom attacks, aimed at gaining as much bitcoin as possible. But our analysis of cyber-coercion highlights how ransomware events such as the Petya are often strategically motivated and less about gaining funds than they are about sending a signal. The primary goal instead appears to be limited destruction through malware wiping systems.
In our forthcoming work, we classify these acts as cyber-disruptions: the use of malware and website defacements between rivals as a form of coercive bargaining. Rival states use cyber-operations to signal one another. Cyber-operations are a 21st-century form of political warfare.
North Korea and Russia are the likely originators of these attacks. What’s the motivation, beyond simply the chaos factor? For Russia, the Petya attack could be a means of encouraging the perception of Ukraine as a failed state — a view that aligns with Russian interests.
Cyber-operations amplify larger psychological warfare efforts. North Korea’s goal, most likely, could be to cause general chaos in Western systems, as a means of signaling strength — and its capacity to escalate in any future crisis.
This is a new era of cyber-conflict
This wave of cyber-disruptions highlights an evolving strategic logic. Competitive interactions in the digital domain evolved from an early period of cyber-probing and testing (1980-2001) to a more stable recent period of cyber-restraint (2001-2016). With Russia’s brazen attempts to undermine American electoral infrastructure and amplify conspiratorial themes through U.S. media outlets, we entered a new era.
The strategic logic of cyber has now shifted from restraint to one of disruption and constant harassment designed to signal capability and the threat of escalation. Russian hackers targeted U.S. institutions, most likely hoping to gain leverage before entering complex negotiations around sanctions, Ukraine and Syria.
While we have yet to witness the extremes of cyberwar, the more subtle danger since 2016 is the way states like Russia and North Korea use cyber-strategies as a form of political warfare. These attacks create chaos, which challenges the prevailing international order and major institutions — from commerce to hospitals to elections — that represent the foundations of Western societies.
Why cyberwarfare works
States have learned that cyber-operations offer a 21st-century vehicle to conduct old-fashioned covert action and psychological warfare without significant fear of rebuke. Russian cyber-meddling over the past two years went largely unpunished in public. Instead, the United States relied on covert coercion to prevent escalation.
Cyber-strategies have now become indirect forms of coercion designed to weaken adversary resolve and create uncertainty, as well as undermine alliances or create political wedges. A growing number of states are using cyber-intrusions to wage psychological warfare and leak information with propaganda value.
In addition to propaganda, states use cyber-operations to influence elections and conduct disruption operations. Russian interference in the elections of Western states has become so common it is now expected. But instead of just disrupting elections, Russia now seems to be leveraging cyberespionage and propaganda to generate larger crises.
Rival states are using cyberspace to wage political warfare campaigns. Here are recent examples:
1) A new group called Global Leaks, an offshoot of the Russian military-attributed group DC Leaks, released the emails of the United Arab Emirates ambassador to the United States in June, causing tensions among Persian Gulf allies by suggesting an alignment between UAE and Israel.
2) In May, Vietnam covertly released transcripts of Donald Trump’s discussions with Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte to disrupt the relationship. Closer ties among China, the Philippines and the United States are problematic for other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Countries hoping to operate by consensus and ward off encroachments by China. Cyber-operations thus became a useful tool to disrupt that developing relationship.
3) In the Middle East, cyber-operations undermine alliances and isolate actors. In June, a Russian hack on Qatar’s state news agency and fake information incorrectly attributing positive statements about Hamas and Iran to the Emir of Qatar may have provoked the first online international crisis. The moves re-sparked a long-standing dispute in the Middle East.
The embargo and ejection of Qatar from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) demonstrates how cyber-operations can have heavy diplomatic ramifications. Russia manipulated the entire Gulf region to turn its back on Qatar by planting stories to be picked up by Saudi news agencies. This led to a cascading diplomatic crisis. Saudi Arabia severed relations with Qatar. Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan and the UAE quickly followed suit.
All of these examples suggest a different character of cyber-conflict — and any new efforts to monitor and curtail these efforts will face no shortage of challenges. To date, cyber-exchanges operated largely under relatively stable international norms, as suggested by Joseph Nye. Yes, China stole intellectual property and rivals probed each other’s networks, but these events didn’t create dangerous crises or seek to undermine faith in Western institutions.
Russia now appears to be using Ukraine as more than a testing ground for cyberwar — it is demonstrating its ability to disrupt faith in public institutions. While the resulting crises after a cyber-event risk inadvertent escalation, the real danger is the erosion of cyber norms. With each new cyber-disruption, the shock decreases, and we grow to expect disorder. The resulting uncertainty and chaos undermines our trust in the open Internet architecture and risks upsetting stability inherent in cyber-exchanges to date.
UPDATE: Since this article was published, new reports suggest the hack on Qatar was directed by the United Arab Emirates. Our main point stands: This is one of dozens of incidents that suggest a new era of chaos and disruptive hacking. The specific attribution to Russia or UAE or other parties remains open to debate at this time and will settle as forensics reports are released, a process that can take many months.
Brandon Valeriano is the Donald Bren chair at Marine Corps University and an adjunct fellow of cybersecurity at the Niskanen Center.
Ryan C. Maness is an assistant professor in the Defense Analysis Department at the Naval Postgraduate School.
Benjamin Jensen is an associate professor at Marine Corps University and Scholar-in-Residence at American University.