Menus Subscribe Search

‘Cyberwarfare’ Will Blur the Edges of War

• October 20, 2010 • 5:00 AM

Particularly if NATO recognizes cyber-attacks as a trigger to start shooting.

The question first came up when Estonian government servers went down in 2007, under a “denial-of-service” attack that seemed — but was never proven — to come officially from Russia. Estonia was a new member of NATO and felt bullied by its former Soviet big brother.

But the question was awkward, and it came up again when Georgian servers went down just before Russian tanks invaded a Georgian province in 2008. (Georgia also wants NATO membership as a shield against Russia.) Were cyber-attacks warfare, and should they trigger Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which provides for collective self-defense? Should the U.S. and Europe consider launching ships and planes against Moscow if servers go down again in some new NATO capital, somewhere on the old Soviet frontier?

A group of experts assembled by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright suggested to NATO last spring that cyberwarfare had emerged as a major concern for the alliance — one of three modes of attack its members had to worry about.

“The most probable threats to Allies in the coming decade are unconventional,” reads the Albright Group’s report. “Three in particular stand out,” including a missile attack, a terrorist attack and “cyber assaults of varying degrees of severity.”

So NATO will consider at its annual summit in Lisbon next month whether — or how — to classify cyber-assaults as violent provocations for the whole alliance.

The report acknowledges that the new century has introduced a new level of ambiguity to the art of war. “There is, of course, nothing ambiguous about a cross border military assault by the combined armed forces of a hostile country,” the Albright report says. “However, there may well be doubts about whether an unconventional danger — such as a cyber attack or evidence that terrorists are planning a strike — triggers the collective defense mechanisms of Article 5.”

Doubts include: where a cyber-assault may have originated, who ordered it, and how severe the damage has to be for Article 5 to be invoked. Cyberwarfare, in other words, brings a fresh element of politics into Allied defense, and it’s not clear at all to powers like Russia that NATO will swing into action for the sake of a small member like Estonia.

The most recent notable act of computer warfare, the so-called Stuxnet worm, may or may not have been aimed at Iran by Israel, Germany, or the United States, and vagueness about the worm’s origins have spared Iran the public pressure to start a shooting war with the West.

By now it’s clear that Russian hackers were behind the Estonian attacks, though who directed them is still a mystery. The Kremlin denies having control over its peskily patriotic computer scientists — which didn’t keep a Russian colonel from observing that the attacks had failed to rouse any major NATO response. “These attacks have been quite successful,” said Col. Anatoly Tsyganok told Gazeta in 2008, “and today the alliance has nothing to oppose Russia’s virtual attacks.”

After November, it will. But then the world will have entered a strange new era. A “cyber-attack” will presumably have to damage far more than some Estonian government servers to trigger a NATO response, but the threshold will be on a sliding scale, and the definition of war itself may blur.

“NATO will face a lot of problems if cyber attacks are inserted into Article 5,” Alex Neill, from the Royal United Services Institute, a British defense think tank, told Deutsche Welle earlier this month. “… There has been a concerted effort by some nations [like Germany and the United States] to pursue covert offensive cyber capabilities, and these could be harnessed by NATO as part of a joint response, although some nations may not want to show the level of their own capability, even to their allies.”

If a cyber-assault can trigger a shooting war, then it also has to be mentioned that NATO will have a murky political mechanism to create false-flag pretexts for war — rather like the Gulf of Tonkin attacks that led, legally, to the American war against North Vietnam.

“If something happens, you can blame anything on anybody,” is how journalist Webster Tarpley described it in an interview with Russia Today. Normally, I wouldn’t invoke Tarpley because of his allegiances to Lyndon LaRouche, but on this topic he states the obvious. “If we have a crash in the D.C. Metro, what to do? Blame a hacker in Russia, or China, or Sudan, and who in the world is gonna be able to say no?”

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Michael Scott Moore
Michael Scott Moore was a 2006-2007 Fulbright fellow for journalism in Germany, and The Economist named his surf travelogue, "Sweetness and Blood," a book of the year in 2010. His first novel, "Too Much of Nothing," was published by Carroll & Graf in 2003, and he’s written about politics and travel for The Atlantic Monthly, Slate, the Los Angeles Times, and Spiegel Online in Berlin, where he serves as editor-at-large.

More From Michael Scott Moore

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 31 • 4:00 PM

Thank You for Your Service: How One Company Sues Soldiers Worldwide

With stores near military bases across the country, the retailer USA Discounters offers easy credit to service members. But when those loans go bad, the company uses the local courts near its Virginia headquarters to file suits by the thousands.


July 31 • 2:00 PM

A New York State of Fracking

Court cases. A governor’s moratorium. Pending health study. A quick guide to the state of fracking in New York.


July 31 • 11:17 AM

How California Could Power Itself Using Nothing but Renewables

We don’t need fossil fuels.


July 31 • 8:00 AM

Should Athletes Train Their Memories?

Sure, but it probably won’t help.


July 31 • 6:00 AM

Universal Basic Income: Something We Can All Agree on?

According to Almaz Zelleke, it’s not a crazy thought.


July 31 • 4:00 AM

Medical Dramas Produce Misinformed, Fatalistic Viewers

New research suggests TV doctor dramas leave viewers with skewed impressions of important health-related topics.


July 30 • 4:00 PM

Still the World’s Top Military Spender

Although declining in real terms, the United States’ military budget remains substantial and a huge drain on our public resources.



July 30 • 2:04 PM

The Rise of the Nuisance Flood

Minor floods are afflicting parts of Maryland nearly 10 times more often than was the case in the 1960s.


July 30 • 2:00 PM

The (Mostly Awful) Things You Learn After Investigating Unpaid Internships for a Year

Though the intern economy remains opaque, dialogue about the role of interns in the labor force—and protections they deserve—is beginning to take shape.


July 30 • 12:00 PM

Why Coffee Shortages Won’t Change the Price of Your Frappuccino

You’re so loyal to Starbucks—and the company knows it—that your daily serving of caffeine is already marked up beyond the reach of any fluctuations in supply.



July 30 • 10:00 AM

Having Difficult Conversations With Your Children

Why it’s necessary, and how to do it.


July 30 • 8:00 AM

How to Make a Convincing Sci-Fi Movie on a Tight Budget

Coherence is a good movie, and its initial shoot cost about the same amount of money as a used Prius.


July 30 • 6:00 AM

Are You Really as Happy as You Say You Are?

Researchers find a universal positivity bias in the way we talk, tweet, and write.


July 30 • 4:00 AM

The Declining Wage Gap for Gay Men

New research finds gay men in America are rapidly catching up with straight married men in terms of wages.


July 30 • 2:00 AM

LeBron James Migration: Big Chef Seeking Small Pond

The King’s return to Cleveland is a symbol for the dramatic shift in domestic as well as international migration.


July 29 • 4:00 PM

Are Children Seeking Refuge Turning More Americans Against Undocumented Immigrants?

A look at Pew Research Center survey data collected in February and July of this year.


July 29 • 2:00 PM

Under Water: The EPA’s Ongoing Struggle to Combat Pollution

Frustration and inaction color efforts to enforce the Clean Water Act.


July 29 • 12:40 PM

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it’s probably in your local river.


July 29 • 12:00 PM

Mining Your Genetic Data for Profit: The Dark Side of Biobanking

One woman’s personal story raises deep questions about the stark limits of current controls in a nascent industry at the very edge of the frontier of humans and technology.


July 29 • 11:23 AM

Where Should You Go to College?


July 29 • 10:29 AM

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.


July 29 • 10:00 AM

The Monolingual American: Why Are Those Outside of the U.S. Encouraging It?

If you are an American trying to learn German in a large German town or city, you will mostly hear English in return, even when you give sprechen your best shot.


July 29 • 8:00 AM

The Elusive Link Between Casinos and Crime

With a study of the impact of Philadelphia’s SugarHouse Casino, a heated debate gets fresh ammunition.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

The Rise of the Nuisance Flood

Minor floods are afflicting parts of Maryland nearly 10 times more often than was the case in the 1960s.

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it's probably in your local river.

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.