Cyber warfare: Ukraine war and power outage in Pakistan

World must wake up to this damaging war by other means by the West

Dr Muhammad Ali Ehsan January 29, 2023
The writer is associated with International Relations Department of DHA Suffa University, Karachi. He tweets @Dr M Ali Ehsan

West blames Russia for executing massive missile strikes using precision-guided munitions to attack, disrupt and destroy critical infrastructure including the electric power industry of Ukraine. In the ongoing Russia-Ukraine crisis and in the fog of war it is really difficult to peep in deep and carry out an objective analysis of the West’s blame. Yet, the American desire to resort to cyber warfare and conduct cyber-attacks on the Russian power industry is also well-grounded. West’s support for Ukraine in all domains — political, economic and military — rests on one overarching principle: provoke the Russian population to indulge in large-scale protests and demonstration against the Putin regime. Nothing will promote that more than the US and NATO cyber-attacks on the Russian electric power industry. Clearly, power grid outages are very discomforting and disruptive — it is not only the loss of light, but other allied state-provided services also get disrupted like water treatment and gas stations that refuel our generators, trucks and cars. Such attacks are military coercive actions that can hamper the ability of the state to execute its state functions — all done without dropping a single bomb and just by getting into the adversary states network.

Just few days ago, more than 230 million people in Pakistan experienced a major power breakdown. If this was a modern welfare state, the energy minister would not have stayed in the office. He would either have resigned on moral principles or the government would have forced him to resign. The way things stand in this country we would even not know what caused this and why the grid failure happened, resulting in the nationwide blackout. But why I am mentioning this is because of its very relevant context. The battle out there between the major powers today is being increasingly fought in the cyber domain and these powers are nuclear powers. Beset by our own unending political problems, we are still a nuclear power. So what does this kind of grid failure means to the nuclear capability of a state? Could this have been a cyber-action carried out to determine how a high value target like Pakistan can be thrust into darkness without firing a single bullet?

If it can be successfully done against Pakistan, why can’t it be done against Moscow, Beijing or Tehran? We must remember the world is clearly divided between a democratic and an autocratic world. Causing operational problems in the information space to the autocratic world is an easy way of creating public dissent. The military objective of the Western cyber warfare is very explicit — it is to disorganise the functioning of the key administrative, military and defence-industrial facilities, railway stations, sea ports, airports and other administrative complexes of the autocratic world that challenges the Western order and an international system that promotes Western interests and favours West.

Achieving these objectives, the US along with its allies is working overtime and we may not have to wait long as the current Russia-Ukraine war may be the battleground where we may witness the extensive employment of cyber warfare and achievement of these objectives. Just last month, NATO conducted the world’s largest cyber defence exercise — Cyber Coalition 2022 — on the territory of the breakaway Russian Baltic Republic and now an independent country Estonia. Conducted right on the borders of Russia, a land power under a combined assault of NATO, the exercise had over 1,000 military personnel from 26 countries of the NATO alliance participating, besides Georgia, Ireland, Finland, Sweden, Switzerland and Japan. What was the urgent requirement of conducting this exercise and what was the message being sent to Russia and Beijing? Could targeting Pakistan as a nuclear state and causing a countrywide grid collapse and outage be one of the pilot projects of this exercise? This is a hypothetical assumption, but given the Western cyber warfare objectives and also the statement coming from our energy minister that some outside hand may be involved in the countrywide blackout, the assumption may not be misconstrued.

Six months before the ‘Estonian Cyber Exercise’ in June 2022, the head of the US Cyber Command, General P Nakasone announced a series of offensive digital operations “in support of Ukraine”. The US already has, in its defence budget of 2023, earmarked $11 billion for cyber-attacks against governments of hostile states. Is even planning such an activity not a gross violation of international laws? Or are the international laws different for Washington than they are for Moscow, Beijing, Tehran or Islamabad? Are these not the western double standards that on the one hand accuse Russia and China of involvement in cyber-attacks on the Western world and on the other hand allocates defence budget for executing similar attacks against these countries? The US has also publicly stated its doctrinal documents on cyber warfare that the whole world and the global information space is “the sphere of her interests”.

Considering that the ongoing war in Ukraine is fundamentally the Western world’s encroachment of Russian sphere of influence, NATO’s eastward encroachment and encirclement of Russia, would the US plans of acting as a global hegemon in cyber warfare go uncontested? These are dangerous signs for the world and the complete blackout in Pakistan is a reminder to the entire world of the type of cyber capabilities that the major powers may have acquired.

Two other countries of the autocratic bloc — China and Iran — have already accused the US of conducting massive cyber-attacks on them. In September 2022, China accused White House of conducting a cyber-attack on its national education institutions; and in October 2022, Iran blamed the US for cyber-attacks that disrupted the operation of its national gas station network.

The world must wake up to this damaging war by other means by the West. It must work on its recovery capabilities, undertake all possible actions and formulate policies to prevent their power grids both from physical and cyber-attacks. The risk of an escalation in hostile cyber exchange between NATO and Russia is very high and may eventually engulf the entire world. Like the two world wars, the next great war may not be fought on the land but in the cyber and information space; and the rising powers and those that challenge the Western liberal hegemony and an international order built to suit only the Western world may have to take this threat very seriously. Back-up plans where data has to be disconnected from the internet and thereby remain inaccessible to hackers may be the way forward.

Cyberspace has evolved into the main domain of military operations and like all previous introduction of destructive military technology we may again thank West for introducing this new threat. The autocratic world is under attack and countries like Russia and China would do well to defend themselves not only in air, land and sea but also in cyberspace. Pakistan would also do well to learn the early lesson and plot a roadmap that shields it against such attacks by its enemies.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 29th, 2023.

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