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Global Consequences of Escalating U.S.-Russia Cyber Conflict

As the capabilities of cyber technologies greatly expand, conflict in cyberspace between countries is becoming an increasing threat. Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. elections is a prominent example of this. After Russian meddling, the U.S. conducted a reciprocal cyber operation against Russia’s Internet Research Agency. Though both actions have been denied by the offending parties, it is fairly clear that both occurred. This exchange marked the first time two major cyber powers publicly conducted offensive cyber operations. However, though many in the U.S. view the U.S. Cyber Command’s response as a crucial deterrence measure, it may not be fully justified under international law and could allow Russia to frame itself as a victim. Also, Russia could use these actions by the U.S. to justify its internal restrictions on citizens’ access to the internet. As a result, this exchange could benefit Russia much more than the U.S. Additionally, Russia could choose to retaliate, further escalating tensions in cyberspace. While these current disputes are still far below the threshold of armed conflict, as more major countries improve their capabilities in cyberspace, such conflicts could soon become a reality. And since the traditional military realities of borders and distance do not limit cyberspace, cyber conflict could arise much more quickly and easily. Therefore, the United Nations must act efficiently to establish international laws and norms to prevent actions in cyberspace from developing into full-blown conflict.
Lukasz Olejnik
Council on Foreign Relations
Domains-Issue Area: 
Industry Focus: 
Internet & Cyberspace