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The information war is here

By the end of the Cold War, the danger of military conflicts in Europe had been reduced. Nevertheless, European nations still face a number of threats to their national security, although the type of threats has changed significantly, as has the nature of war.

December 12, 2020 - New Eastern Europe Tomasz Kubiak - Hot Topics

Photo: Shutterstock

The war in Ukraine demonstrates that contemporary warfare has a completely different character than previous European conflicts. The European community recognises a number of new non-military and military threats that it has to face. There is a new understanding of the challenges of national security, and most of the world powers, such as China, Russia, Saudi Arabia or Iran, understand this transformation. Now is high time for European nations to understand these threats and adjust their national security strategies accordingly.

Current threats to the Euro-Atlantic security include global health security, international and domestic terrorism, and border security. Each of them should be taken seriously, however, cyber and information warfare seem to be the most crucial to national integrity, international co-operation and democratic values. In the case of NATO overall threats are coming from the Chinese and Russian side. Their common goal is to inflict damage to the West’s key institutions – the Council of Europe, the European Union and NATO.

Cyber and information warfare is a relatively new instrument, the use of which intensified in recent years. The doctrine treats information as one of the most perilous weapons. It is inexpensive, unlimited and easily accessible. In the contemporary, globalised world traditional wars is costly, that is why world powers have been utilising proxy wars instead. Today, information and cyber-warfare is a new way of gaining control over an adversary’s politics, society and sometimes even territory. There is no longer a need for military force or even proxy wars to control another country’s territory. This situation is a revolution in military affairs that presents the main challenge for the Euro-Atlantic strategy.

The most common tools in today’s information war include troll factories, bots and fake news. In order to influence a target country’s society, Beijing and Moscow spread manipulated or fabricated information or even a combination of both. They exploit authentic information in a way that gives rise to false implication. However, information- and cyber warfare is not just about manipulation. It is also new technologies being used for espionage and cyberattacks; therefore, it is creating false information, blackmail and lobbying.

According to General Philip Breedlove: “Russia is waging the most amazing information warfare blitzkrieg we have ever seen in the history of information warfare.” Cyber threats to the security of the Alliance are becoming more complex and destructive than ever before. The sophistication of Russian and Chinese cyberattacks is growing. Most European states still underestimate this new model of international rivalry. There are still not enough instruments to identify and counter the Russian propaganda machine and Chinese troll factories.

Russian propaganda tools are mostly active in the “frontline states” of NATO: Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Russians attempt to denigrate their international reputation; developing pro-Kremlin media and supporting far-right nationalist movements. Since the Baltic states have been under the strongest influence of the Russian hybrid approach to projection of power, they have developed many counter-techniques and strategies in order to deal with the Russian threat. Today, however, no state is able to withstand these types of danger without international cooperation.

NATO has already started adjusting its security defence to the new military reality. Cyber defence has become a part of NATO’s core task of collective defence. In 2016, the Alliance recognised cyberspace as a key domain of operation which is as important as its strategies in the air, land, or sea. Since then, allies have been upgrading their ability to respond to cyber threats. In 2018, they agreed to set up the Cyberspace Operations Centre. The co-operation with the EU in this area has been also increased.

The Alliance seems to be doing its homework. Nevertheless, there still remains a lot to be done. European and American democratic values, liberal approach to politics and collective character of their defence impede the effectiveness of the decision-making process. What is more, reforms being done at the administrative level are not enough. There is also a need for a more aware and critical approach of the European and American societies. It is going to be a long process, and NATO seems to be just at the beginning of its way to fully developed cybersecurity.

This text was prepared based on the podcast titled „Nadszedł czas wojen informacyjnych. Trzeba to dostrzec”, and translated and written by Tomasz Kubiak.

Funding for the translation and podcast series came from a grant by NATO’s Department of Public Diplomacy, in co-operation with the “Stratpoints” Foundation for Security and Development.

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