Home / Opinion / Columns /  Russia, Nato and the battle for credibility in the Ukraine crisis
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Last week, financial industry regulators in Europe and the United States alerted banks to tighten their cyber security in anticipation of possible attacks by Russia-linked hackers. Going by Russia’s actions against Estonia, Georgia and Ukraine over the past 15 years, there are grounds to expect cyber attacks during an escalating political crisis or ahead of a Russian military operation.

While it is prudent for Western governments to warn financial institutions to raise their guard, it is unclear if Russia will launch offensive cyber operations against the US, Britain and the European Union. It is one thing to harass weaker countries, but quite another to attack equally powerful or superior cyber powers. Russians are astute strategists and will know that the US and Britain can retaliate in kind, and that the consequences of a cyber war with them will hurt both Russia’s economy and reputation. It is impossible to tell what Moscow will do, but getting into a general cyber war with the West is unlikely to be a desired option.

Similarly, it is hard to see how a narrower cyber attack on North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato) troops and military installations will serve Russia’s interests, unless Vladimir Putin is prepared for an all-out war with the West. A Russian cyber attack on a Nato military network, or vice-versa, is bound to be interpreted as a ‘blinding attack’ ahead of a missile strike. Six decades of experience has taught everyone that such a move can trigger a chain of events which can quickly escalate to the nuclear level. Cyber attacks—even those that do not target nuclear and missile-defence installations—raise the risk of nuclear war. A Global No First Use (GNFU) mechanism can reduce these risks and ought to be a priority of the world’s strategic establishments.

Even without considering nuclear risks, the balance of cyber power between Nato and Russia is quite different from what Moscow enjoys with Georgia or Ukraine. Russia can expect severe damage to its own military networks. It will also have to deal with the risk that a major cyber setback, whichever the side that were to suffer it, might invite a military response that would otherwise have been avoidable.

None of this is to understate the gravity of a cyber war, nor indeed, the chance that one or the other side might trigger one. Rather, it is to warn strategists that cyber operations must not be seen as a low-cost option in international relations. Similar to weapons of mass destruction, the effects of cyber attacks are hard to contain. Targets, attackers, allies, adversaries and neutrals are all interconnected in a complex manner. There will be mutually assured damage. By implication, countries like India, which see no dog of their own in the fight, will still have to attend to their cyber security.

Information warfare is not only about cyber operations that involve hacking machines. At another level, it involves information operations, or the hacking of minds. If cyber operations have thus far been limited, information operations have been in full flow from all sides. Russia is certainly very advanced in instrumentalizing information for strategic purposes. Far from asserting superiority, though, it is only challenging the West’s longstanding narrative dominance. However advanced its internet-powered information operations, it is fighting three centuries of the spread of the power of ideas of individual liberty, democracy and free markets. Moscow is trying to compensate for its grand epistemological weakness by using the media to influence contextual perceptions, political views, elections and historical narratives.

Yet, Russia’s recourse to military power demonstrates the failure of its information operations in Ukraine. Moreover, the US and Britain have been quite successful in shaping contextual perceptions. Russian military movements were exposed months ago, eliminating the element of surprise and jolting EU countries from complacency. The exposure of alleged Russian plans for a regime change in Kiev and false flag attacks as a pretext for invasion pre-empted Moscow’s moves. Even if these are bluffs, they work: Russia cannot use these options without confirming Western allegations.

Even so, Russia has blended information warfare with military power to re-establish its credentials—at significant cost—as a forceful challenger of Western dominance. On its part, the US has shown that it still has the intention and capacity to confront a major power. If strategy is about getting into a better position for the next round, both sides can claim some success.

Whatever the role of cyber and information operations in achieving these outcomes, it is clear that information warfare is in large part a contest of credibility. Who would you believe: a Washington that cried wolf over Iraq’s non-existent nukes, or a Moscow that claims it has no intention of invading Ukraine after surrounding it with combat troops? Credibility is a currency whose reserves have to be accumulated over time: reputation for factual accuracy, transparency, public reasoning and due process. To fight and win information wars against foreign adversaries, you need a war chest of credibility. And there is no other way but to earn it.

Nitin Pai is co-founder and director of The Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy

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