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Transnistria: The Meltdown of a Frozen Conflict?

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It is November 1990 and the river Nistru has a double value. For those situated on its right bank, the river is a boundary, a fronter meant to separate The Republic of Moldova from Transnistria. For those who reside on the left bank, the river is just a cross-point towards the most Eastern part of Moldova. The contention point is the existence or not of such a thing as an autonomous and sovereign Tranistrian state (PMR). At this point a war breaks down between the two sides,a pro-Moldavian force and the separatist one which had some military support from Russia. The open conflict ends with a cease-fire that has not been replaced by a more stable resolution since 1992.

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Flag of Transnistria Source: Dieter Zirnig

Back to present times, the Moldavian-Transnistrian relation is what we would call a ‘frozen conflict’. On the international level, the region between the Nistru river and Ukraine is recognized as being part of Moldova. In practice however, a filo-Russian centre of power exercises actual control over the disputed territory from its Tiraspol headquarters. I will argue that in a sense, this region is another chess board where NATO and Kremlin show off their skills.

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Kaliningrad on the map

There is an ongoing presence of Russian troops on the ground with the double moral purpose to protect Russian nationals from potential threats coming from the Moldavian majority and to help stabilize the situation in the form of peace-keeping. There is furthermore the strategic goal of maintaining an open door into Eastern Europe, following Kalinigrad’s example. If we imagined a dark scenario where the Old Continent would once more fall into violent conflict, the Kaliningrad exclave would play the part of a strategic military outpost for Russians, which could be further supplied with weapons and soldiers through the Baltic Sea.

Map_of_the_Crimea

Map of Crimea

The same logic could have been applied to PMR until the current Ukrainian turn of events. As I see it, Ukraine stands between this potential outpost and the Russian Federation. Events in Ukraine bring to light at the least the possibility of a future NATO membership. That translates into the blockage of access to Transnistria for Kremlin’s hard power capabilities. Metaphorically it resembles the clogging of an artery which eventually leads to the death of an organ. The strategic benefit of Transnistria will be lost if Kiev-Moscow relations get interrupted. As a consequence, Russian leaders point now their energy on another outpost in the Black Sea, which is Crimea.

An example that proves all the above is the recent diplomatic scuffle between Romania and Moldova on one side and the Russian Deputy Prime Minister, Rogozin. The latter one was intending to fly to Tiraspol for the Victory Day celebration. Since Ukraine and Romania blocked their airspace to the plane on which he was travelling, Rogozin was stuck in Moldova. He managed eventually to return to Moscow, from where he made serious threats to Romanian authorities: ”Next time I’ll fly on board TU-160”. That is Russia’s largest bomber.

It is being said that Rogozin carried with him back home the signed petitions of Transnistrian residents which claim the recognition of their half-a-million-people Republic as independent and autonomous from Moldova. The relation between the two is now at a very low point both because of Russia’s support for PMR independence and also because of EU’s decision to sign the association agreements with the authorities in Chisinau and Tbilisi. The existing pattern shows that most Eastern and Southeastern European countries were admitted into the EU only after being granted NATO membership. If the habitual way of handling EU enlargement does not change, then there is a high probability that Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia will in the foreseeable future have NATO troops on their territories. Under such circumstances, Article 5 will enforce itself directly against Russia in the case of any type of aggression towards the mentioned countries. The West will have the responsibility to act militarily.

Finally, this big power politics explains the recognition movement undergoing in Transnistria. Its parliament is on the path of recognizing Russian legislation as applicable to its citizens who will officially have the Russian language as their national language. These are preparatory steps for being part of the Russian Federation, a desire expressed openly by Transnistrian officials. Nevertheless, prior to Moldova moving a step closer to the EU, Russian politicians appeared a bit reserved in accepting Tiraspol’s offers. Some even went as far as to say that Chisinau is behaving properly in observing the cease-fire and the truce and that only a reunification with Romania would automatically call for a solution as dramatic as annexation. This fear was as a matter of fact probably the main cause for the secessionist move in the first place. Aside from this, most probably it will very much depend on the results of the election for new leaders in Kiev and the situation on the ground in Eastern Ukraine. More than this, it will be conditioned by the love and hate relationship between the EU and the US which materializes in NATO’s strategy.

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Source: Medien [email protected]

To conclude our discussion, we can sum up and observe the main antagonists and their interests. First, we have the opposition between Moldova and Tiraspol on PMR’s right of self-determination . Going on a higher level, we have Romania who sees itself as a gateway to Europe and therefore must act as a responsible, strong actor in the face of any potential threat coming from its East. On the big power playing field, we have Russia who is feeling pressured from NATO and US expanding their grip towards its borders. Finally we have the EU and its member states who have a very strong interest in creating a free market that would incorporate the countries around the Black Sea and also an existential need of finding alternative energy supplies, mainly from Azerbaijan, supplies which would cross Georgia and even Ukraine. These are the conditions that will shape Transnitria’s fate and with it most certainly everyone’s future. The heat is increasing around this frozen conflict and its meltdown will unfortunately bring a big flood with it.

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The History Question: Is It Better to Remember or to Forget?

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Years ago, a philosopher by the name of George Santayana said a phrase that fuels many debates to this day. His original saying is “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, although, many sources now present it as variations of “those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it”. The latter definitely has more substance to it in the light of the ongoing debate about how much history we should be learning and how.

Is It Better to Remember or Forget About the Past?

On one hand, Santayana was right. Learning about the past is essential in order for people to progress. One also shouldn’t overlook the importance of remembrance and paying respects to the dead, both those who pushed the progress forward and those who have fallen victims to major tragedies that could and should have been averted.

The main argument in favor of learning about the past is that its knowledge is necessary for preventing the same thing happening in the future. Having it one can see the signs and stop the tragedy before it gains momentum.

That’s sound in theory, but the reality is always different. For example, today people are surely forgetting, and the much-critiqued education system is only partially at fault here. Even the greatest of tragedies weren’t spared this fate. It’s a proven fact that about two-thirds of millennials today don’t know about the Holocaust, and this number is surely greater for generations that follow them. In the school history course, the subject of one of the greatest disasters in history is barely touched, if touched at all. And outside of a history classroom, one can only see small, but terrifying, glimpses of it at the Holocaust Museum and other museums that rarely attract many visitors. And now we are witnessing a rise of antisemitic crime.

Are these two facts related? Does the lack of awareness about the horrors done in the name of Aryan supremacy contribute to the fact that right-winged extremists seem to be gaining popularity again?

It does, but by how much? That is the question that no one can truly answer.

And what about other genocides? The Holocaust had the highest death toll, but it was far from the only genocide in history. And quite a few of those happened after World War 2 and before the memory of the atrocities against the Jews began to fade. This means that while forgetting history is a factor, it’s not the deciding factor in its repeats.

But what is that thing responsible for the reenactment of past mistakes and tragedies?

Learning. This is the important thing that is most often overlooked when citing Santayana’s famous saying. It’s not enough to learn about the past and know the facts of things that happened. It’s important to learn from those facts and put in place protections that will prevent them from happening again. And this is something that humanity, as a whole, has yet to succeed in doing.

Dwelling in the Past Can Be Just As Bad

One also shouldn’t forget that there is such a thing as “too much history”. The Bosnian War and genocide that happened there in the 1990s is a vivid example of how the past can be exploited by political powers. Used as a part of propaganda, which fueled the war, history can become a weapon in the hands of those who want to use it for their own goals.

And this is what humans have been doing since the dawn of time. There is always someone who will use any means necessary to achieve whatever it is they wish. This results in wars and genocides, and hundreds of smaller but no less devastating tragedies.

Therefore, the problem isn’t whether people should be learning history but human nature itself. Perhaps, teaching this can help fix this fundamental flaw and truly stop the worst of the past from repeating.

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Is there such thing as cyberwar?

Alexandra Goman

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Two decades have passed after Arquilla and Ronfeldt in 1993 warned the public about an upcoming. They were also the first to introduce a concept of cyberwar and give an elaborated opinion. They referred to a conduct and preparation of military operations using information-related principles and also invoked a link between intelligence (the collection of information for political or military purpose) and cyber operations. Now, the scale of intelligence has significantly expanded.

Interestingly, before cyber appeared, there was a radio which was used for intelligence purposes and was weaponized later in the World War II. From that time on, electronic warfare became standard characteristics of a modern conflict. Despite this, there is a key difference between electronic warfare and a cyber one. Traditional electronic warfare aimed to guide, target, or protect weapons systems (Ibid., p. 24). In contrast, cyber makes today’s weapons and military systems smarter but also more vulnerable for an attack.

At the moment everyone still wonders what the whole idea of cyberwar means. There is no accepted interpretation or definition. Furthermore, many experts even say that such war does not even exist (or cannot be referred to the notion of “war”). Perhaps, it is due to the fact that a war in cyberspace has not yet happened. To make it clear, cyber capability has not actually killed anyone and a code has not been used as the use of force.

Similarly, the dangers of a nuclear bomb were recognized only after its use, the same goes to the notion of “nuclear war”. Although there have been many cyberattacks, none of them have been raised to the level of war because none of them, in fact, caused the level of damage which could be adhered to the level of a large-scale conflict.

Cyber warfare has derived from different aspects of conventional warfare and traditional definitions of war. It usually involves organized units within nation-state in offensive or defensive operations which are part of a war or a conflict.

In general, since cyber study is relatively new, there are many competing terms and definitions to explain cyber phenomenon. The following concepts – the revolution in military affairs, electronic warfare, information warfare, and cyber war – have been all offered to describe the new emerging area of conflict. Experts do not agree on any particular term, more often using different notions when talking about cyber issues. Nonetheless, it is vital to understand the facts of the 21st century similarly to the need that rose along with the invention of atomic reaction. A major concern now is no longer weapons of mass destruction, but weapons of mass disruption. (2009, p. 47).

One of the central elements to define a cyberwar, is that it has to meet the same criteria, applied to any other type of war. Vandalism or spying is an act of crime, but they do not start wars. So, assumingly, there has to be physical destruction and casualties in order to declare a war.

Therefore, a cyberwar should have real world damage similar to a conventional war. For this matter, it should probably take place in a digital world. What is not clear, however, is whether it should be fought exclusively in cyberspace or it can accompany a conventional attack too. This aspect is quite interesting, because cyberattacks can easily be used in combination with a kinetic attack and can multiply the force and power of the attacker.

In this case, it does not make sense to create a new term “cyberwar” as it falls down under the same definition of war. It is the same example when aerial bombings supported the attacks on the ground during the World War I, but in the end we called it a war, not a particular type of war. Consequently, cyber introduction resembles more a revolution in military affairs, rather that a new emerging type of warfare.

What is clear, though, is that the difference in definitions complicates the matters of regulating cyberspace and prevents achieving a common ground on cyber issues and/or developing new treaties and agreements between the states. So far there is no international agreement on the cyber principles, despite some attempts of the states to engage into negotiations (Budapest Conference on Cyberspace, the World Conference on International Telecommunications). There is, however, the Convention on Cybercrime, the first international agreement that addresses compute crime, adopted by the Council of Europe. Interestingly enough, Russia (as a part of the Council) neither signed nor ratified the agreement, whereas US (not part of the Council) recognized it and ratified it.

Apart from these difficulties in defining cyberwar, there has been a hyperbolic use of the word itself, mostly by media and tabloids (e.g. The Washington Post, “We are at cyberwar and we are our own enemy”; The New York Times, “How to prevent Cyberwar”; Zdnet, “Cyberwar: a guide to the frightening future of online conflict”; Komsomolskaya Pravda, “Are we expecting the First World Cyberwar?” etc.). They do not usually give any concrete information but are eager to use this term and apply it randomly to different cases just because it sounds good.  All in all, uninformed public use of the word has enormously contributed into the heat surrounding cyber implications.

Futher, cyberattacks are too often discussed equivalently, regardless of its impact. In this sense, minor cases like ransomware or phishing might be raised to the level of an armed attack (especially if they affect multiple computers worldwide). Yet, these cases are good examples of cybercrime, and crime is not a war. When individuals engage into this type of activity, they do not engage in a war.  The same goes for espionage in cyberspace. Catching a spy on one’s territory will certainly put pressure on bilateral relations, but it would not start a war.

This exaggeration of cyberattacks can be explained through securitization theory. The notion offered by the Copenhagen Security School describes how a certain concept can be politicized and securitized to the extent that it becomes a threat to national security (See Buzan, 2006).

To conclude, it should be mentioned that there is no guidance for the conduct of “cyberwar”.  There are no internationally agreed definitions and, to that extent, the whole idea of cyberwar so far seems unrealistic. At this moment technology is not sophisticated enough to ensure a military conduct entirely in cyberspace. Besides, any cyberattack of such scale would presumably result in a physical destruction, which consequently might provoke a conventional retaliation attack. This, in result, would cause a war we know for years, so there is no need to introduce a particular type of war. On another note, using cyber operations to support a conventional war and/or conflict is the way to go, but in this case it is just a revolution and modernization in military affairs.

I would be interested to hear your opinion about that in the comments below.

For further information see:

1)    A movie “War Games” (1983)

2)    Arquilla, J. and Ronfeldt, D. (1993). The Cyberwar is Coming! RAND Corporation, [online] Available at: https://www.rand.org/pubs/reprints/RP223.html

3)    Cetron, M. J. and Davies, O. (2009). Ten critical trends for cyber security. The Futurist, 43(5), pp. 40–49.

4)    Stiennon, R. (2015). There Will Be Cyberwar: How The Move To Network-Centric War Fighting Has Set The Stage For Cyberwar. Michigan: IT-Harvest Press.

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On the issue of cyber security of critical infrastructures

Alexandra Goman

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There is a lot of talk in regards to cyberattacks nowadays. A regular user worries about its data and tries to secure by all means necessary. Yet, no one really thinks whether the power plants or nuclear facilities are well secured. Everyone assumes that they should be secured.

The reality, however, differs. According to many reports of cyber security companies, there is an increased risk of cyberattacks, targeting SCADA and ICS. Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) is used for the systems that control physical equipment – power plants, oil and gas pipelines, they can also control or monitor processes such as heating or energy consumption. Along with Industrial Control Systems (ICS) they control critical elements of industrial automation processes. Exploiting vulnerabilities of critical infrastructures can lead to the consequences of unimaginable scale. (These types of attacks are actually used in a cyberwar scenarios and hypothetical military settings).

Source: Fortinet, 2015

There are many reasons why these systems are vulnerable for attacks. First of all, the main problem is that these systems have an old design; they were built before they were connected to any networks. They were later configured to connect via Ethernet, and that’s when they became a part of a larger infrastructure. The more advanced SCADA system is becoming, the more vulnerabilities are these to exploit. The updates should be regular and on time. Secondly, there is a lack of monitoring. New devices that are connected allow remote monitoring, but not all devices have the same reporting capabilities. There are also authentication issues (weak passwords, authentication process), however, this is supposed to restrict unauthorized access (See Common SCADA Threats and Vulnerabilities at Patriot Technologies, Inc. Online).

In these scenarios, there is no certainty to know what is going to backfire because of the complexity of communications and power networks. This is also called a cascading effect of attacks. Not knowing who is connected to who may cause major disruptions. The example of the US East Coast power blackout in 2003 proves this point (a failure in one element of the grid spreads across other electrical networks). However, given this, it is also complicated for an attacker to predict consequences, if an attack executed. This kind of attack can easily escalate into more serious conflict, so it might not be the best option for states to employ such methods.

Moreover, there is a risk to damage a critical infrastructure unintentionally. That is if a virus or worm did not intend to target SCADA but happen to spread there as well. The uncontrollability of the code may seriously impair the desire to use it, especially when it comes to nation-states. For instance, in 2003 a worm penetrated a private network of the US Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station and disabled a safety monitoring system for 5 hours. In 2009, French fighter jets could not take off because they were infected with a virus.

Indeed, a scenario where an attacker gains access to a SCADA system and manipulates with the system, causing disruptions on a large-scale, might be hypothetical but it does not make it less possible in the future. However, the only known case so far, which affected an industrial control centre, is Stuxnet. It did not result in many deaths, yet it drew attention of the experts on the plausibility of future more sophisticated attacks. These potential upcoming attacks might cause the level of destruction, comparable to that of a conventional attack, therefore resulting in war.

Further reading:

Bradbury, D. (2012). SCADA: a Critical Vulnerability. Computer Fraud & Security, 4, p. 11-14.

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