Russia and China have each warned the United States that the offensive cyber-ops it ran to support Ukraine were acts of aggression that invite reprisal.
The US has acknowledged it assisted Ukraine to shore up its cyber defences, conducted information operations, and took offensive actions during Russia’s illegal invasion.
While many nations occasionally mention they possess offensive cyber-weapons and won’t be afraid to use them, admissions they’ve been used are rare. US Cyber Command chief General Paul Nakasone’s public remarks to that effect were therefore unusual.
Washington is lowering the threshold for the combat use of ICT.
China addressed the American ops at its daily foreign affairs briefing on June 8, when spokesperson Zhao Lijian said “The US needs to explain to the international community how these ‘hacking operations’ are consistent with its professed position of not engaging directly in the Russia-Ukraine conflict.”
He also protested the US’s deployment of “cyber military forces in some small and medium-sized countries.” The US acknowledges it offered such assistance to nine nations in 2021 and asserts that it does so to help such countries protect their digital domains.
Zhao said accepting that help is dangerous.
“These countries need to keep their eyes wide open and beware whether such deployment could embroil them in a conflict they are not looking for,” he warned, adding that US action in cyberspace could escalate into kinetic – or even nuclear – conflict.
Russia raised the issue in a transcription of a June 9 Q&A between an unnamed journalist and A.V. Krutskikh, director of the Department of International Information Security of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia.
Krutskikh characterized US actions as DDoS attacks on Russian infrastructure that have impacted government and civilian targets, with the latter including leaks of personal data and disruption of video-sharing sites.
“Washington is deliberately lowering the threshold for the combat use of ICT,” Krutskikh said. “Militarization of the information space by the West and attempts to turn it into an arena of interstate confrontation have greatly increased the threat of a direct military clash with unpredictable consequences.”
China and Russia announced a “friendship without limits” in February 2022. It’s thought that Russia may have honoured that pact by delaying its invasion of Ukraine until after the Beijing Winter Olympic Games concluded.
The two nations’ very similar statements, made on successive days, may not be coincidental.
The remarks, and the US’s actions, were made against a background of international efforts to define new laws of war that rule out using technological attacks on civilian infrastructure. Few if any nations oppose such measures, but existing frameworks are ill-defined and attempts to strengthen them have largely been avoided by the US, China, and Russia. ®