Crimea Crisis: Operational Complexities in a (Non-) Present Cyberwar

As the situation on the Crimean peninsula remains tense, media reports on cyber incidents disrupting Crimean information and communication networks are increasingly discussing the likelihood of a virtual escalation of the crisis, and the hypotheticals of a cyberwar between Russia and the Ukraine. While the following articles provide different assessments of the cyber-strategical status quo, together they give a simple overview of the different layers on which the involved parties have already carried out cyber attacks.

The Physical – Ukraine/Crimea

Two days ago, Foreign Policy (FP) reported how “[t]he new strikes appear to have been conducted mostly by hand rather than by hackers”. The article mentioned the jamming of phone and radio signals, possibly from Russian navy ships, and, more prominently, the siege of several of the Ukrainian state-owned service provider’s Crimea offices, in the course of which phone and internet cables have allegedly been cut, damaging the region’s internet backbone. Also, “armed commandos reportedly cut off power lines at the Ukrainian navy headquarters in Sevastopol”, and “other teams of commandos” allegedly broke into Ukrainian navy communication stations, sabotaging information and communication technological infrastructure.

The Virtual – Endpoints in Ukraine/Crimea

Yesterday, Digital news outlet Quartz cited the head of Ukraine’s security service, saying that “the mobile phones of Ukrainian lawmakers are under attack by equipment located in Russian-controlled Crimea”. Moreover, though “only sporadic”, remote attacks have been reported targeting Ukraine.

The Virtual – Endpoints in Russia

Also yesterday, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Technology Review mentioned that the Russian government “has moved to block Internet pages devoted to the Ukrainian protest movement”, while “Info-war tactics have been seen on the Ukrainian side too”, when the Russian government’s English-language news organ Russia Today had been hacked and defaced.

The common spin of all three reports is that “all-in” cyberwarefare in the form of massive denial-of-service attacks, as witnessed in Estonia 2007 or Georgia 2008, has not yet occurred. Accordingly, further layers facilitating cyber conflict, including physical spaces in Russia and other critical infrastructures in the Ukraine, have not evolved for now. FP stated that “Moscow hasn’t succeeded in imposing an information blackout, but the attacks could be sign that Russia is looking to escalate its military operations […] without firing a shot”. Contrarily, Quartz argued that the limited scope of this (non-)present cyberwar is in line with the Russian Federation’s intentions of isolating Crimea and controlling information and communication traffic through the peninsula’s internet exchange point.

 

While the evolution of the conflict and of Russia’s and Ukraine’s cyber operations can hardly be predicted at the moment, I think it is worth tracking how the current events develop international military and diplomatic conduct in cyber conflicts, and which rules of engagement the involved parties will base their actions on – on each of the different layers elaborated above.

 

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Authors

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Professor William Snyder

Professor William C. Snyderis a member of the faculty of the Institute for National Security and Counter-terrorism at Syracuse University after fifteen years with the United States Department of Justice.

Ryan D. White

Ryan D. WhiteRyan is currently a third year law student at Syracuse University College of Law, and is also pursuing a Master of Public Administration degree from Syracuse’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. Ryan spent time with Homeland Security Investigations while pursuing his undergraduate degree at Wesleyan University, and spent his first summer of law school as clerk for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Western District of New York. He is a member of Syracuse Law Review, the Journal on Terrorism and Security Analysis, and participates in the Veteran’s Legal Clinic. Full biography

Shelby E. Mann

Ryan D. WhiteShelby is a second year law student at the Syracuse University College of Law. During her final year at the University of Missouri, she served as a full-time news producer for ABC 17 News. Shelby spent her first summer of law school at the Shelby County District Attorney General's Office in Memphis, Tenn., in the Public Corruption and Economic Crimes Unit. She is a member of Syracuse Law Review, the Journal on Terrorism and Security Analysis, and the senior editor for the Syrian Accountability Project. Full biography

Christopher w. FolkChristopher W. Folk

is a 2017 graduate of SU College of Law. A non-traditional student, Christopher returned to academia after spending nearly twenty years in the high tech industry. Christopher served in the Marine Corps, graduated from Cornell University with a B.S. In Applied Economics and Business Management, attended Northeastern University’s High-Tech MBA Program and received a M.S. In Computer Information Systems. Christopher previously worked in Software Engineering. Christopher is currently serving his second term as Town Justice for the Town of Waterloo. Christopher externed with a Cybersecurity firm in the Washington, D.C. area between his first and second year at SU College of Law. Full biography

Anna Maria Castillo

is 2016 graduate of Syracuse College of Law. She also holds a Master of Arts in International Relations from Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. She has interned at a London-based think-tank that specializes in transnational terrorism and global security and at the legal department of a defense contractor. She served as an executive editor in the Syracuse Law Review. Full biography

Jennifer A. CamilloJennifer A. Camillo

is a 2015 graduate of Syracuse College of Law and is a prosecutor. She has served as a law clerk in the United States Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of New York and the Cayuga County District Attorney’s Office and as an extern in the Oneida County District Attorney’s Office. She was a member of the Syracuse National Trial Team and was awarded the Tiffany Cup by the New York Bar Association for her trial advocacy achievements.

Tara J. PistoreseTara J. Pistorese

holds Juris Doctor and Masters of Public Administration degrees from Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs and its College of Law. She wrote for this blog when a student. She is now a member of the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General's Corps.

Benjamin Zaiser

is both a scholar and a Federal Agent of the Federal Criminal Police Office of Germany. (Opinions expressed here are his own and not any part of official duty.) Full biography

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