The Cold War ended over 25 years ago, but the lingering Soviet specter continues to haunt the Western world. Since the election of Russian President Vladimir Putin in March 2000, a new conflict has been brewing, this time in cyberspace. And on a battlefield monopolized by the United States and Russia, the historical threats of nuclear war, ambitions of global dominance and aspirations of containing the enemy may not be the relics of the past we imagine them to be.
The Next Weapon of Mass Destruction
Nuclear war is still a very real and pressing threat. But the increasingly pervasive cyber threat is just as critical and even harder to counter. Layered onto the tensions that arose during the Cold War, cyberwarfare has added new dimensions to politically based threats, scalability of tactics, deniability of action and strategies of containment — all made possible, and performed remotely, with a new weapon: the computer. As Mr. Wabash so aptly put in “Three Days of the Condor,” it’s hard not to “miss that kind of clarity” the old Cold War provided.
Of course, Winston Churchill’s vivid image of an Iron Curtain descending around the Soviet bloc has stuck with us to this day. But instead of a somber, morosely elegant red curtain separating East from West, it is now a digital hologram, a virtual reality of misdirection on the international stage. Behind this invisible curtain are clear antagonists, at least from the United States’ perspective: Russia, China and Iran. But the lines of culpability have been blurred by the entrance of state and non-state actors, rogues and proxy groups, criminals and activists — each armed with an array of digital tools tailored to suit its ambitions. The barriers to entry in a burgeoning global conflict have never been so low: All you need are a brain, a motive and a computer.
This is what the new Cyber Cold War looks like, an era in which perceptions become the reality. And if Russia’s hacking of the Democratic National Committee last year is any indication, the most powerful tools at each nation’s disposal will be obfuscation, deniability and misdirection.
Fanning the Flames Within
These tools fall within the realm of Covert Action Information Operations (CA/IO), a perceptual construct that will define how the Cyber Cold War plays out. A field with a rich and storied history, CA/IO tactics tap into existing popular sentiments to offer the world’s intelligence agencies a variety of ways and means, stealth, invisibility and a measurable (if often delayed) impact. For instance, in World War II the British conceived of and executed Operation Mincemeat, which shortened the war considerably by using misdirection to hide the Allies’ planned attack routes through the Mediterranean from the Nazis. Then, during the Cold War, the CIA helped to encourage the mass consumption of Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago within the Soviet Union, subtly spurring opposition to the government over time.
The effects of CA/IO can be tough to measure, but they are often clear nonetheless. The same is true of such operations conducted in cyberspace, as a cursory glance at Russia’s recent meddling in Western elections shows. In the years ahead, cyber tools will become the new “active measures” — the Soviet term for acts of political warfare intended to shape global events — as perpetrators use them to hide in plain sight, create subterfuge, maintain plausible deniability and shift blame to convenient scapegoats.
Of course, Winston Churchill’s vivid image of an Iron Curtain descending around the Soviet bloc has stuck with us to this day. But instead of a somber, morosely elegant red curtain separating East from West, it is now a digital hologram, a virtual reality of misdirection on the international stage.
Perhaps no one has proved more adept at this over the past few years than the Russians. In hopes of achieving political and territorial dominance, driving Europe’s disintegration and undermining the United States’ image worldwide, the Kremlin’s intelligence services have begun to skillfully combine overt military action with largely covert cyber CA/IO attacks — to great effect. In Syria, Russia has targeted the rebels attempting to overthrow President Bashar al Assad with airstrikes and misdirection campaigns alike. Closer to home, it softened the battlefield in Crimea and Ukraine with CA/IO attacks before launching an invasion on the ground. Putin has even publicly left the door to further military action open, claiming it would only be used as a “last resort.” First soft power, second hard power, third occupation — as simple as 1, 2, 3. (To add insult to injury, Putin was nominated for the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize the day after he moved troops into Crimea.)
Last year Moscow took advantage of similar conditions in America to make inroads into U.S. politics. The Kremlin, aware of the public’s simmering frustration with politicians in Washington, hacked into the Democratic National Committee and leaked information in a manner designed to confound and poison the electoral atmosphere. Not only that, it used proxies to do its dirty work, sowing doubt and driving the wedge between right and left even deeper. All Putin had to do was set the wheels in motion and watch the ensuing drama’s own momentum carry it forward, wreaking havoc along the way.
A War by Any Other Name
So is the Cold War really over, or has the front line simply moved from the open, physical landscape to a hidden, virtual one? After all, CA/IO doesn’t happen on a whim; it is used with intention, which Russia certainly still has when it comes to dividing and weakening its enemies. That much, at least, has not changed, even if the tactics it uses to achieve that goal have.
Russia’s newfound reliance on cyber CA/IO warfare has also changed the face of geopolitics, shrinking the world as we know it into a collection of zeros and ones that knows none of the constraints imposed by distance or terrain. Meanwhile, adversaries conceal their hands not by the cover of darkness but by hiding in plain sight. Armed with attack software that cannot be traced back to them, these enemies use the genius of misdirection and misinformation to target systems left unprotected, creating both the perceptions they desire and the deniability they need to achieve their ends.
It’s no wonder that Western leaders and institutions have been flummoxed by this new Cyber Cold War. Rather than addressing it head-on, many have chosen to commit fratricide by pointing the finger at anyone but the true culprit. All the while, U.S. intelligence chiefs have urged President Donald Trump to take action against state-sponsored cyber activity emanating from Russia. An easy place to start is to candidly call it what it is.
Perhaps it is time for the world’s greatest powers to acknowledge that the Cold War is far from over. That the events unfolding before our eyes are a virtual reality created by disinformation, misinformation and manipulation, driven by motives we have not paid proper attention to. Putin’s cyber operations have undermined America’s institutions, but they have not weakened its resolve. The U.S. system of governance is resilient, fortified by a robust democracy and the rule of law. Russia’s, however, is more fragile, a fact Putin knows well.
Russia’s landscape is vast and verdant, and its people are dedicated to a culture of arts, science and music. But energy and weapons exports are no longer enough to sustain the country’s weakening economy. Atop this tenuous house of cards sits Putin, who is hoping that misdirection will buy him time with his own people. What happens when Russians grow tired of Putin’s mantra that the world, led by the United States, is out to get them? The master tactician has used Moscow’s ventures in Ukraine and Syria to distract his people from the problems they face at home, but can he sustain that strategy for much longer?
Putin is living in a glass house at the center of a modern Potemkin village. The Russia of today has the stacked-deck, hollow feel of the late 1980s and early 1990s — an era his people certainly don’t want to return to, because they haven’t forgotten how it ended.