To the Journal editor:
Politicians, both Democratic and Republican, have likened the recent Russian cyber-attack to an “act of war” similar to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. This tough rhetoric will undoubtedly have the desired effect, but talk of war is serious. As the United States decides how to respond to these Russian provocations it would be prudent to consider the following factors.
First, was the Russian hack intended as an espionage operation designed to gain access to information, or was it designed to implant destructive malware? If the hack was espionage, we should condemn the intrusions into American governmental and nongovernmental organizations and apply appropriate but proportional sanctions. That said, our most effective response will be to design better counter espionage systems. However, if these Russian cyber-attacks were designed to be destructive, either immediately or at some later date, then more stringent sanctions and retaliatory responses would be appropriate. In either case, in order to deter future cyber-attacks by Russia or any other country, the U.S. should publicly describe its retaliatory cyber-capabilities and declare its intent to use these capabilities if necessary.
Second, on Sept. 25, Putin warned that a “large-scale confrontation in the digital sphere” was about to occur. Putin went on to propose that Russia and America should “exchange guarantees of non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, including electoral processes and Information Communication Technology.” Putin’s proposal for a cyber-truce may have been disingenuous, but the concerns he expressed prompt questions regarding what the U.S. is currently doing in its attempts to hack into Russian systems.
Third, it is well known that the U.S. and Russia have always used cutting-edge technology to spy on each other. For example, in 1960 the U.S. was flying secret spy missions over the USSR. After a U-2 plane went missing Eisenhower denied that we were flying these secret missions, until Khrushchev produced the U.S. pilot, Gary Powers, along with the wreckage of the U-2.
Fourth, today, the lines between “acceptable” cyber espionage and destructive cyber-attacks have become blurred. Now that the rules of the spying game have become less clearly defined, we need to clarify what constitutes an “act of war.”
Finally, if retaliatory action is taken in response to the recent Russian cyber-attacks it should be carried out in ways that won’t lead to uncontrolled escalation of the conflict. As they say, “Vengeance is a dish best served cold.”
Editor’s note: Dr. Robert Kulisheck is a professor emeritus with the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at Northern Michigan University. He taught courses in the areas of American Foreign Policy, International Relations and Defense Administration.