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A war on infinite fronts — Russia, Ukraine and the double whammy of ‘hybrid warfare’

A war on infinite fronts — Russia, Ukraine and the double whammy of ‘hybrid warfare’
The authors say that modern warfare, characterised by bullets and missiles, is increasingly being be ushered in through cyberattacks. (Archive photo: Supplied by ISS Today)

The future of warfare has a major cybersecurity component, with states in possession of cyber offences being the ones most likely to dictate the path of war.

President Vladimir Putin’s 2022 Russian military operation to “denazify” and demilitarise Ukraine provides war analysts with an insight into future warfare, but more so, new add-ons into war doctrines.

Previously, before the advent of digital technologies, superior airstrikes paved the way for ground forces. Cyberattacks against the enemy’s critical infrastructure, such as communication and national security apparatus, however, take precedence in today’s digitally dominated realm. The aim is to blind the enemy to the oncoming military onslaught.

While pro-Russia and pro-Ukraine forces are engaged in postmodernist arguments, debating whether Russia’s security concerns justified its invasion of Ukraine or whether Ukraine is truly a victim of Russia’s expansionary designs, in practice the use of cyber capabilities for the war effort is one area in which they both converge. Cyber vigilantism is on the rise, as autonomous international and domestic hacker groups join war efforts in support of victim states. Some are driven by a sense of patriotism.

In contemporary military operations, overflowing as they are with digital technologies, the actual war characterised by bullets and missiles tends to be ushered in by cyberattacks (i.e. early warning systems). Countries often deploy cyber capabilities to facilitate a grand entrance to their military in the more traditional form of boots and helmets. For example, when erstwhile US president George Bush announced on 20 March 2003 that the US military would begin military operations in Iraq, the rationale of the invasion was to locate weapons of mass destruction and end what the West called Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship against the Iraqi people.

Before the US put boots on the ground in Iraq, the latter had its computer networks, internet grid and radar systems crippled by the US military command. The crippling of Iraq’s computer systems was to blind its political and military leaders to the oncoming military attacks, weakening their military strategy and response. In other words, the cyberattacks in Iraq were used to make it difficult for Iraq’s top brass to communicate and coordinate a military response effectively. Iraq was caught flat-footed, hence the US experienced episodes of military victories during the early days of the war effort.

Again, in 2007, Israel obscured (or hacked, to be more blunt) Syria’s air defence systems before sending fighter jets to demolish the supposed nuclear facility in Diaya-al-Sahir. Cyber capabilities are often used for military operations, but as enablers, not as primary actors.

The ubiquitous nature of information and communication technologies, having grown steadily even by 2000s standards, means cyber offences are also available to vigilantes. In this respect, states no longer have the exclusive right to declare another state’s behaviour as atrocious and determine appropriate retaliatory measures.

As demonstrated by the international hacker group Anonymous, cyber vigilantism continues to challenge states’ monopoly on retaliation (i.e. the use of force). For example, in 2011, Anonymous took the US Central Intelligence Agency website down in retaliation for the US involvement in the 2010 Stuxnet virus that crippled Iran’s nuclear programme. Even before Iran tailored a retaliatory package, Anonymous had a head start.

Here, there is double jeopardy on the perpetrator state: it stands to be attacked by vigilantes as well as by the actual victim state. Consequently, the principle of proportionality disappears under dormancy due to double jeopardy. The ultimate result of double jeopardy is that while the perpetrator state would ordinarily accept retaliation from the injured state, it finds itself wounded beyond cause, breeding the possibility of a second attack against the initially injured state.

Closer to home, Anonymous went on a doxing spree publishing an estimated 16,000 whistle-blower files hacked from SAPS systems in 2013 to protest the killing of 34 striking miners by police officers during the Marikana strike on 16 August 2012.

Thus, the internet provides tools to hold states to account. Domestic and international court systems no longer have a monopoly on holding faulty leaders and government policies to account.

In another cyberattack, three South African government websites were defaced in 2012 by hacker groups sympathetic to Morocco. The attacks began with the Department of Social Development website in December 2012. Hackers claimed the South African government’s websites got defaced because the nation supported Western Sahara independence against Morocco’s wishes. While Morocco could use diplomatic efforts, such as blocking motions beneficial to South Africa in the African Union and frustrating South Africa’s efforts in regional and international bodies, the latter suffers from double jeopardy when cyber vigilantism is added to the mix.

While the international community’s outcry about the invasion of Ukraine began after seeing Russian missiles and tanks used against Ukrainian military posts on 24 February 2022, Ukraine as a state had begun to feel the noose getting tighter through cyberattacks on its internet apparatus. Preceding the invasion day, Ukraine started to experience distributed denial of service attacks (DDoS) on significant websites (a clear indication in modern warfare that war is afoot). Researchers at the ESET, the international cybersecurity firm, registered “wiper attacks” on Ukrainian computers, with malware intending to render the computer networks out of commission by wiping data from the networks.

Responding to the invasion, Anonymous declared a “cyberwar” against Russia. Various Russian websites were taken down, including the Ministry of Defence and the Russia Today news website, through DDoS attacks by the group. With the advent of cyber vigilantism, we observe that peace efforts can be frustrated. States might be willing to negotiate, but how do we “ask” cyber vigilante groups to stop their efforts? How do we plead with nationalist cyber groups to give diplomacy a chance?

Russian vigilante groups have also taken up “cyber arms”. There have been reports of Kremlin-aligned hacker groups and individuals targeting Ukrainian government websites, banks and army websites in DDoS attacks. In a show of patriotism and advanced computer wizardly, on 2 March 2022, a pro-Russian hacker group named Killnet boasted of taking down the website belonging to the Anonymous hacker group for the latter’s declaration of cyberwar against Russia. The Killnet group also took down websites belonging to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, blaming Zelensky for “adopting wrong policies”, presumably against Moscow.

Another Russian hacker group, the Conti ransomware group, has threatened cyber retaliation against all states adopting hostile policies, i.e. sanctions, against Russia. In addition, the Conti group, which is considered ideologically linked to Kremlin, has threatened to weaponise its offensive cyber capabilities should Russian critical infrastructure be targeted by Western sympathisers.

Ukrainian internet and computer networks are fair game to the advanced Russian state’s offensive cyber capabilities and nationalists in Russia with cyber capabilities, with the latter not prone to the restraints of the internationally renowned “responsible state behaviour” doctrine.

The introduction of cyber vigilantism enabled by the ubiquitous cyberspace challenges the Westphalian state-led global system, putting shame on national borders and domestic authorities. While the internet is prone to benevolence, it remains a challenge to states, especially during war times. Individuals or groups with advanced computer skills can hold states hostage in cyberspace.

Through the ostensibly coercive cyber vigilantism, states are compelled to conform to accepted standards established not in the United Nations’ corridors and halls, but by faceless computer capable groups and individuals online. States intending not to follow what is acceptable to the faceless vigilantes will have to enhance their cybersecurity systems against advanced computer groups beholden to no state, but to principles of justice, equality, and peace.

The pre-emptive cyber strikes also compel states to enhance their cybersecurity systems, especially on critical infrastructure, for war. As Ukraine found out in February 2022, these can come about at any time, with internet and computer networks being the primary target in military operations.

The future of warfare has a major cybersecurity component, with states in possession of cyber offences likely to dictate the path of war.

In the same vein, states with hardened cybersecurity systems will in future have to face the enemy on the battlefield, with the enemy having failed to gain an advantage through cybersecurity and forced into a symmetrical war where cyber vigilantism is also nullified. DM

The writers are researchers with the 4IR and Digital Policy Research Unit (4DPRU) at the University of Johannesburg. They write in their personal capacities.


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