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Of Cyber, War, and Cyberwar

By Eneken Tikk & Mika Kerttunen

Eneken Tikk and Mika Kerttunen introduce their essay with barely concealed irony. In a short prologue, the former describes her experiences on the day Estonia experienced a major cyber attack in 2007. The confusion caused by the outage of government and media websites disrupted many everyday processes. But even at the time, Tikk was surprised and somewhat dismayed by the largely uncritical use of terms like “war” and “self-defence” (though they are commonplace today). In fact, the situation was hard to classify from a legal or international law point of view.

More than ten years later, the authors provide a clarification, which is still urgently needed. Rejecting the inflationary use of the term “war” – which apart from anything else plays down the horrors of an actual war – they advocate a definition of war that clearly follows Clausewitz. Neither current nor anticipated future cyber activities are subsumed by this concept, because – then as now, and most likely in the future – such activities are not capable of causing substantial physical damage. The fact that militaries around the world are developing and expanding their capacities to wage war via electronic means does not contradict this observation. Rather it is a logical consequence of increasing digitalization and interconnectedness.

Nevertheless – and this is the authors’ central argument – this issue is about more than just terminology. As cyberspace becomes a zone of conflict, talk of war makes us blind to actual risky developments. Because of their “below-the-threshold” character, cyber operations of all kinds are attractive as a standard means of projecting power – especially to smaller states and new cyberpowers. This promises to bring destabilization, the gradual debasement of the principles of international law, and escalatory automatisms leading to the risk of a conventional kinetic war.

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