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Going Beyond a Blitzkrieg Attack: Russia’s Approach to 21st Century Cyberwarfare

When it comes to any country or non-state actor focused on asymmetric warfare, major attacks can be developed and released by a handful of rogue operatives sitting in front of a computer screen, not a division of soldiers needed to cross a border in a fleet of tanks, trucks and other armored vehicles. As Sun Tzu writes in The Art of War, “Great results, can be achieved with small forces.”

This new type of electronic warfare called cyberwarfare is really nanokrieg, the accelerated, electronic approach to 21st-century warfare which can be won and lost in a relatively short period of time. Electronic warfare can be accomplished and have very crippling impacts on countries without the traditional logistics of sending divisions of trained soldiers moving in hundreds of armored vehicles necessary for traditional warfare. Cyberwarfare gets us closer to emulating the writings of Sun Tzu, when he observed, “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

Trojan horses, worms, viruses, denial-of-service attacks, ransomware, and other destructive malware weapons do not need vast numbers of troops, huge logistical support, or long, planning timeframes in order to coordinate and assemble.
They can be sent off in a microsecond on an electronic pathway to attack selected targets. This is the new warzone of the digital age. Moreover, they can be initiated to hit several hundred times a minute, if not faster. The pace of warfare has greatly accelerated in the digital space.

Russia has all those troops and tanks on the border, but is it more for show than an actual invasion? Why spend all that money when several effective rounds of cyberattacks can cause more immediate damage, without spending any money on fuel to move all those vehicles?

In cyberspace, there are no frontlines anymore, only virtual lines across electronic borders and digital infrastructure. Battlefields are now in server farms in data centers and across intelligent infrastructure (the power grid and broadband connectivity networks). Some attacks could happen, and no one would even know about them for a year. Some cyberattacks are virtually untraceable and therefore, immune from immediate counterattacks or detection for years.

As I have previously written, the United States must develop an effective cybersecurity initiative like global net superiority for defense in electronic cyberwarfare which would result in the same protection as overhead “air superiority” in traditional warfare most are familiar with.

Nanokrieg has none of the traditional limitations from logistical issues found in 20th-century warfare and is fought electronically on digital infrastructure, rather than the fields and valleys of different countries. “Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected,” Sun Tzu observes.

Today, we have the digital equivalent to the Maginot Line in anti-virus software running in most data centers and automated facilities. The software is thought to be 100% effective in protecting assets but in reality, it provides effective security for about 90% of the types of viruses and malware out there today. We need to raise that level of coverage to 98%, or even 99%.

During a cyberattack, thousands of pinpoint attacks on different electronic targets like banks, critical infrastructure, and data centers can be launched by high-speed transaction processors in less than a second. Stock markets could plummet.

Exchanges could be totally manipulated, and corporate and individual bank accounts could be wiped out or transferred across the world. “Begin by seizing something which your opponent holds dear; then he will be amenable to your will,” Sun Tzu writes.

Russia is already testing out Sun Tzu’s approach using cyberattacks even as they amass troops on the border with Ukraine. They may not have to move their troops into Ukraine at all if they can get political concessions by initiating several successful cyberattacks on Ukraine’s critical digital infrastructure.

When it comes to Russia using cyberwarfare against Ukraine, it would not be the first time a cyberweapon would have been used. They attacked Ukraine’s power grid in 2015 utilizing hackers to take down its power grid.

The biggest difference between traditional warfare and electronic warfare is that preparation and planning have greatly accelerated. Cyberattacks do not take months of planning or the logistical coordination of amassing 130,000 troops and their equipment.

Riches and treasures do not need heavy equipment, troops, trains, or even convoys of trucks to pull them out of a country. They can get extracted out of a country electronically long before anyone realizes it. Cyberwarfare is so different than traditional warfare. Electronic valuables and critical financial information have no physical weight, just virtual value.

It will be interesting to see if Russia focuses on conducting cyberattacks to get concessions before it reverts back to the traditional approach of tanks and armor of conventional warfare.