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Amid intense military fighting on the battlefield, Russia and Ukraine are also waging cyber-warfare. In the early hours of Vladimir Putin’s invasion, Russian hackers tried to cripple tens of thousands of satellite internet modems in Ukraine in a bid to shut down the Internet and leave Ukrainians in an information vacuum. According to Microsoft, Russian hackers also targeted Ukrainian organisations such as nuclear power companies, media firms and government entities. The cyber-attacks took down several major Ukrainian governmental and banking websites.

According to Max Smeets, director of the European Cyber Conflict Research initiative, some Western countries targeted by cyber-attacks could interpret them as acts of war. As a result, a NATO member could trigger article 5 and a full-blown Third World War. 

Mr Smeets told Times Radio: “A cyber operation can in fact lead to trigger, in the case of NATO, Article 5. And you can call it an act of war in case the disruption or destruction is highly significant.

“What is a bit trickier and what we wouldn’t call warfare for sure is indeed when you’re just kind of probing these systems when you’re getting access to them.

“But the open question, though, is, well, okay, maybe what see is sometimes operations that individually are not very, very significant but cumulatively can have great effects.”

“And the question is to what degree you can look at them as a whole and then still say, well, this meets the threshold of seeing this as an armed conflict,” said Mr Smeets.

“And increasingly, countries are veering in this direction, that we should think this not individually, but we should look at these operations sometimes in campaign sets up where we link them together.”

Times Radio’s host Hugo Rifkind then said: “So, look, on some levels, it’s a little surprising to think of nations like, well, North Korea and Iran, particularly having very impressive cyber forces, because we don’t necessarily think of them as being, you know, certainly in a civil sense, IT powerhouses.”

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“What’s the link there? I mean, basically, do we develop fantastic military cyber forces by having a civilian infrastructure sort of there first to provide the manpower and the expertise? Or are they quite separate?” Times Radio’s Hugo Rifkind asked.

Mr Smeets said: “Well, what is really interesting here in this space is that it’s an uneven playing field. And what I mean with that is countries don’t abide by the same exact rules to operate in this space.

“Some countries care a lot more about collateral effects, about hitting maybe other targets that you don’t want to hit that other countries do. Now, when you think about the number of constraints, so if you want to be a responsible power in this space, then suddenly the requirements to conduct operations disproportionately go up.”

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Times Radio’s Hugo Rifkind clarified: “Clearly, basically, you mean, like, for example, if Britain is to probe the defence of Russia, we would be very, very concerned about for example, taking down a hospital infrastructure by mistake whereas in return Russia might be less concerned about doing that.”

“Exactly, exactly,” said Mr Smeets. “And that’s what we have seen in this space. So, we’ve seen, for instance, Russia deploying a worm that affected also many systems in the UK. It started in Ukraine in an accounting firm, but then it had implications for even shipping companies and many other companies across Europe. Because it wasn’t really the well-developed capability.”

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