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

September 2 • 10:00 AM

SWAT Pranks and SWAT Mistakes

The proliferation of risky police raids over the decades.


September 2 • 9:12 AM

Conference Call: The Graphic Novel


September 2 • 8:00 AM

Why We’re Not Holding State Legislators Accountable

The way we vote means that the political fortunes of state legislators hinge on events outside of their state and their control.


September 2 • 7:00 AM

When Men Who Abstain From Premarital Sex Get Married

Young men who take abstinence pledges have trouble adjusting to sexual norms when they become husbands.


September 2 • 6:00 AM

The Rise of Biblical Counseling

For millions of Christians, biblical counselors have replaced psychologists. Some think it’s time to reverse course.


September 2 • 5:12 AM

No Innovation Without Migration

People bring their ideas with them when they move from place to place.


September 2 • 4:00 AM

Why Middle School Doesn’t Have to Suck

Some people suspect the troubles of middle school are a matter of age. Middle schoolers, they think, are simply too moody, pimply, and cliquish to be easily educable. But these five studies might convince you otherwise.


September 2 • 3:13 AM

Coming Soon: When Robots Lie


September 2 • 2:00 AM

Introducing the New Issue of ‘Pacific Standard’

The science of self-control, the rise of biblical counseling, why middle school doesn’t have to suck, and more in our September/October 2014 print issue.


September 1 • 1:00 PM

Television and Overeating: What We Watch Matters

New research finds fast-moving programming leads to mindless overeating.



September 1 • 6:00 AM

Why Someone Named Monty Iceman Sold Doogie Howser’s Estate

How unusual names, under certain circumstances, can lead to success.



August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


August 28 • 12:00 PM

The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Meme Money

The ALS Association has raised nearly $100 million over the past month, 50 times what it raised in the same period last year. How will that money be spent, and how can non-profit executives make a windfall last?


August 28 • 11:56 AM

Outlawing Water Conflict: California Legislators Confront Risky Groundwater Loophole

California, where ambitious agriculture sucks up 80 percent of the state’s developed water, is no stranger to water wrangles. Now one of the worst droughts in state history is pushing legislators to reckon with its unwieldy water laws, especially one major oversight: California has been the only Western state without groundwater regulation—but now that looks set to change.


August 28 • 11:38 AM

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

When Men Who Abstain From Premarital Sex Get Married

Young men who take abstinence pledges have trouble adjusting to sexual norms when they become husbands.

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

The Big One

One third of the United States federal budget for fighting wildfires goes toward one percent of such fires. September/October 2014 big-one-fires-final

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