Recent cyber attacks on US establishments about three weeks ago have raised fresh concerns on the future of Russo-American relations.
US intelligence services got busy since the incidents to unravel those behind the attacks on campaign offices of Hilary Clinton, Democratic Presidential Candidate and the Democratic National Committee. The US authorities are particularly working to prove the degree of involvement of Russia following serious suspicions that the country may have been behind the attacks.
For some time, cyber attacks were seen in the main as handiwork of cyber criminals or terrorists. However, the latest dimension of alleged state involvement in cyber attacks poses a new challenge to inter-state relations and in the instant case, a new twist to super-power relations between US and Russia.
Part of the investigations launched by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is to unravel cyber breaches targeting New York Times and other media organizations by cyber hackers suspected to be working for the Russian intelligence service.
The attack on New York Times is not the first by hackers on the famous Newspaper house. In 2013, the same media organization was attacked by a group of hackers identified as the Syrian Electronic Army. US intelligence sources had in the same year fingered Chinese hackers for infiltrating computer systems of the same newspaper house.
The attacks on the New York Times are strategic to the hackers who target the rich information reservoir in the leading media establishment. By spying on media practitioners, the hackers target national security information, patents and other classified information that media houses work hard to assemble through diligent investigative journalism.
The suspicion that Russia may have been behind the latest cyber attacks is borne largely from similar occurrences in other countries that are allies of the US. For instance, Russian hackers were said to have attacked the German Parliament, French TV5Monde, and the stock exchange in Warsaw, Poland.
Russia is also believed to have been behind series of cyber attacks on the former Soviet republics, including Lithuania, Latvia, Georgia and Ukraine. In the case of Ukraine, the attacks led to the total shut down of the country’s national electricity grid.
The cyber attacks are perfect acts of espionage which is a crime in international law. Although classified a crime, spying has for decades since the end of the second World War remained a critical tool of foreign policy implementation. At the height of the cold war, America’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the defunct Soviet Union’s KGB, were very active in intelligence gathering using local agents or direct spies in all countries of the world as they competed to undo each other in the global game of influence that characterized the cold war. Other countries of the world similarly responded by strengthening their national intelligence organizations which were in most cases incorporated into the diplomatic personnel of the countries in foreign missions. Although the cold war ended over two decades ago, the use of intelligence has remained a critical tool in foreign policy delivery of many countries.
If the allegations against Russia are sustained, the US might respond in a way that would deter the country from further carrying out the cyber attacks either on US territory or on the organizations of any of her allies.
Since the allegations were raised against Russia, US foreign policy pundits have canvassed a number of policy options the country should adopt either to deter Russia or forestall future attacks.
Some experts have called on the US to sanction the groups linked to the attacks to reduce their capacity to carry out future actions. This suggestion would be dependent on the findings of US intelligence establishment already investigating the attacks.
Other experts want the US to “expand and strengthen” sanctions against Russia already imposed by the European Union and to extend the sanctions to end of this year. Suggestions in this regard hinge on the alleged attacks on the DNC which is seen as enough justification to continue with the EU imposed sanctions.
Some experts want the US administration to empower private sector organizations to build capacity to take “approved actions” under a “coordinated framework” to protect the country’s cyber infrastructure.
The experts also charged the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)to develop cyber capabilities to shield crucial infrastructure like telecommunications and electric grid networks from cyber attackers in addition to the military build up which has been up in the last six months in direct response to Russia’s actions in the Eastern bloc.
It is still not clear whether the US would adopt these measures or launch retaliatory cyber attacks on Russian establishments but going by precedents, it should be obvious that US will take definite actions against Russia.
Whatever measures the US may adopt, the likelihood would be increased tensions in Russo-American relations on one hand and NATO-Russia engagement on the other. Already, NATO has commenced war games around the Eastern corridor to put Russia in check.
In this column in August, I presented the picture of the military build up by both sides of the divide. I specifically stated that
“In May alone, Russia was said to have mobilized about 30,000 troops to her NATO flank as opposed to 4,000 troops mobilized by the NATO at the Baltic borders. Russia is believed to have set aside 20trillion rubbles,($313billion) on defence spending from now till 2020”,.
The cyber attacks might add to the already tensed relations between the two world powers with all the adverse consequences on international peace.
With US presidential elections by the corner and the exit of President Barack Obama just about three months away, the US might delay her options but the security threat posed by the cyber attacks is one issue that Obama’s successor would have to tackle soon on assumption of office on January 20, 2017.