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Digital Battlefields and the “Weaponization” of Thought

Cyberwars can become fully-fledged conflicts offline

The world has become digital. Digitisation has affected not only office workers, students, and bureaucrats of all levels, but now also the military. After all, expressions like “cyber soldier” and the “weaponization of thought” are now commonly used.

The threat of a global cyberwar between Russia, its authoritarian allies, and the West is increasingly being discussed. Despite the significant technological backwardness of Russia as compared to the West, its ability to conduct cyber operations and information attacks is difficult to overestimate. The effects of virtual wars are also being discussed. “The biggest threat is that online incidents can lead to a full-scale war offline,” said the special envoy of the President of the Russian Federation for International Security Cooperation, Andrei Krupsky, at the UN Cyber-General High-Level Panel in June this year.

Kremlin-backed cyberattacks, informational and propaganda operations, attacks on objects of critical infrastructure, and the bribing and intimidation of political opponents are repeatedly reported by NGOs, authorities, and the victims themselves. This was a specific focus of the conference “Behind the Digital Curtain: Civil Society vs. State-Sponsored Cyber-attacks”, organised by the NGO Promote Ukraine this summer in Brussels.

“The challenges we now have in Europe: how to defeat Putin without becoming Putin; how to protect democracy without becoming non-democratic. There are several things that non-democratic forces do to us and their population. They spread fake news, conduct influence operations, they hack elections, and they involve us in cyber wars,” says Professor Ziga Turk, member of the High Level Expert Group (HLEG) on fake news (Slovenia), during the conference in Brussels.

Certain experts argue that this relatively new military doctrine has not significantly changed warfare. The only thing that separates the ways in which Russia conducts its operations nowadays as opposed to during the Cold War is the abundance of new technology, specifically the emergence of cyberweapons. In this case, it is correct to call Russian aggression against sovereign states an act of hybrid warfare, a large part of which is played by cyber soldiers. However, battles on the digital field are no less fierce than the real ones.

“During the Cold War, we were worried about nuclear weapons – as weapons of mass destruction. But now our societies are deploying cyberweapons at such an extent that they have become weapons of mass disruption,” said Stanislav Secrieru, an analyst at the European Institute for Security Studies (EUISS).

Who are hackers working for the Kremlin?

With the invention of the internet in 1983 and its rapid development, Russia faced hard times as the information flows on the internet were hard to control. Russian special operations had to search for new solutions to combat these new challenges. And one of these solutions was a change in thought – if you cannot overcome something, then you have to tame it. Following this, the rapid development of Russian hacker activity began in 1998 – a period of crisis when a lot of programmers were left unemployed. They were thus used by the government and transformed into hackers working for the Kremlin.

The first massive hacker groups began to appear in the 2000s. They are now known as APT28 and APT29 (Advanced Persistent Threat 28 and 29) and are mostly known for conducting cyber espionage and stealing data. In fact, German special operations forces accused APT28 of hacking into the Bundestag. Furthermore, hackers from the same group are also responsible for attacking the French TV station TV5Monde, causing the channel to stop broadcasting for several hours. (In addition, the ISIS flag was displayed on the news channel’s website).

APT29 was first noticed in 2015, when the group hacked the US White House, Department of State, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. As a result of this cyberattack, cyber warfare became a topic of discussion throughout the world.

“I’m from Venezuela and can confirm everything you say. We have the Caribbean version of it all,” said Irene Perez-Merbis, a participant in the conference, speaking about interference in elections and the Russian Federation’s information campaigns in sovereign states.

“Friendly” election support

According to experts, in the last 20 years, Russia has meddled in the election processes of almost 30 different countries, especially those located within the orbit of Russian interests such as Ukraine, Georgia, and the EU countries.

In the case of the Ukrainian presidential elections in 2019, Russia did not have a favourite candidate. Thus, most experts agree that Russian hackers attempted to discredit the electoral process as a whole rather than target any specific candidate. However, during the parliamentary elections two months later, there was a favourite candidate and that candidate managed to end up in second place, although with significantly fewer votes than Zelenskyy’s party. In the case of the European Union, it is important to note that during the European parliamentary elections, there was a serious threat of the emergence of Eurosceptics, or far-right and far-left radicals whom the Kremlin is openly friendly with.

“We saw that elections to the European Parliament were not free from outside interference,” notes Emoke Peter, European Commission Policy Officer, “but we should not take this as a norm.”

Experts who have worked on this question for a long time reveal that multiple steps or phases must be taken into account before a state might seize power in sovereign states:

  • The search for contacts and access points:

Within Ukraine, there are many oppositionists who are friendly with the Kremlin. Accordingly, the day before the Ukrainian parliamentary elections, these oppositionists actively campaigned on the basis of lowering the price for gas between Russia and Ukraine. Within Europe, parties like Marine Le Pen’s National Front (Rassemblement National) and the Alternative for Germany (AfD) also have a friendly outlook towards Russia.

  • The financing of politicians loyal to the Kremlin:

As evidenced by the Surkov Leaks, it is crucial to understand that there has been financing, on the part of Russia, of certain parties during the local elections in Ukraine in 2015. In the case of Europe, such financing is witnessed by the nine million euros Marine Le Pen received from the Kremlin.

  • Strategic cooperation with these partners:

An example of which is the above-mentioned arrangement for lowering gas prices.

  • Discreditation of opponents:

Evidenced in the discrediting of authorities and the demonstration of the incompetence of said authorities. This is where cyber operations, such as hacking opponents, become a reality.

  • Soft change in power – the rise of politicians loyal to the Kremlin.

This is how Yanukovych managed to rise to power and, at present, we are observing the rise of similar forces in Austria, Greece, Moldova, and other countries.

Viktoria Rozendaal

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