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Defining how a no-holds-barred Russia-Ukraine cyberwar would play out

Gregg Keizer | March 7, 2014
With some opening shots in a cyber component to the war of nerves in the Ukraine already fired, security analysts today offered a look at how a full-fledged cyberwar in the region would unfold.

Pescatore was more skeptical than Stiennon that a full-scale cyberattack would be launched, even if Russian troops took on Ukrainian military forces. The risk, he said, would be in-kind retaliation. "They would have the same problem defending against cyberattacks as the West. You can't really defend against people clicking on dangerous stuff," Pescatore said.

Instead, he thought that major powers might treat open cyberwarfare with the same MAD (mutual assured destruction) doctrine of deterrence as they have nuclear weapons, and chemical and biological attacks, when neither side — the U.S.-backed coalition and that lead by the Soviet Union — dared to strike because of massive retaliation.

"There could be enormous collateral damage," said Pescatore of such a war, if opponents deployed already-crafted worms to disrupt or destroy Internet-connected targets. As the Stuxnet worm showed, unintended targets could be affected.

If a widespread and open cyberwar broke out in the Ukraine-Russia conflict, Stiennon bet that the U.S. and its allies would not intervene with their own cyber capabilities, not wanting to lose strike capabilities unless events took an even more ominous turn, such as if NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) became involved because tripwires had been triggered along the borders of Ukraine, Russia and Russia's partner Belarus.

NATO countries along those borders include the Baltic nations of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia; Hungary; Poland; Romania; and Slovakia. NATO met Tuesday after Poland cited Article 4, which states that "the parties will consult whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence, or security of any of the parties is threatened."

"If NATO got into a shooting war, than at that point...." said Stiennon, pausing, "we wouldn't be talking about [cyberwarfare]."


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