New war, new frontiers

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By Hari Kumar

4 min read
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Traditional warfare is dangerous enough, but now we have threats of battles spreading to unknown realms.

Representative image | Photo: AP

We will fight them on the ocean, on the beaches, on the streets, and on the hills, said British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in his famous speech on June 4, 1940, as the Second World War flared.

Now, eight decades later, another war has erupted in Europe, and the battlefronts have expanded to new frontiers – space and the internet.

Well before Russian soldiers marched into Ukraine, a US-based commercial satellite company, Capella Space, had provided a clue as its radar satellites picked up largescale Russian troop movements along the Ukraine border.

Todd Humphreys, a professor at the University of Texas, told the Wired magazine that around 50 satellites are now positioned above Ukraine, helping the government keep track of Russian troops. Many of these satellites are owned and operated by private firms, and the data they generate is an immense help to a nation at war.

Besides Capella’s eyes in the sky, Elon Musk’s SpaceX offers Ukraine access to the internet. Thus, the role of private satellite companies is indeed becoming crucial in a global crisis.

So far, these satellites have faced no threat, but Russia is one of the few countries with the capability to destroy satellites. So, what if Russia shoots down a private satellite? Is Washington going to retaliate by starting a war in outer space or target something on the ground? No one knows. But no one can also rule out that the world is rolling towards a dangerous situation.

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Now that Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and Tik-Tok have isolated Russia, the Russian people have only a restricted access to social media platforms. Meanwhile, President Putin’s state-run media give the people a different version of the truth about what is going on at their western border.

At the same time, in Ukraine the government is not contented with internet giants simply restricting access to Russians. It wants more and has asked the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to cut Russia off the internet.

ICANN’s chief executive officer Goran Marby has declined the request saying ICANN does not have the power to do it. In a letter, he also pointed out such a move could redefine the whole model of the internet, and it needs global cooperation.

“You can understand why such a system cannot operate based on requests from one territory or country concerning internal operations within another territory or country. Such a change in the process would have devastating and permanent effects on the trust and utility of this global system,” wrote Marby.

The ground realities during a war are difficult to gauge as information is often shrouded in the fog of battle. But one thing is becoming clear: despite being known as the nation that manipulated the election results in the United States through cyber campaigns and a country where well-organised hacker gangs thrive, Russia is struggling to contain the cyber campaigns against it. Nor has Russia been able to unleash large cyberattacks against Ukraine.

A few known hacker groups have openly declared their intention raid particular targets and even claimed to have succeeded in their efforts, but some experts say their contentions are more bark than bite.

“Let’s be honest here; what may hacktivism change in this picture? Besides, most of the reports of hacktivism are unverifiable at best. They are highly amplified on social media and traditional electronic media, but what is the actual effect?” asked Lukasz Olejnik, an independent cybersecurity researcher and former cyberwarfare advisor to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

While largescale hacking is yet to emerge, a furious propaganda war is going on the internet. Both sides are using social media platforms with their version of the war. Groups ranging from political factions to anti-vaccine campaigners have also thrown themselves into the muddle.

Ukraine is lucky as its president, Volodymyr Zelensky, a professional comedian, is social media savvy. He swept to power after his political satire Servant of the People became a huge hit.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky | Photo: AFP

It is rare for a country to elect a comedian as its leader. Even rarer for that leader to grow in stature during a crisis. A more familiar story is a populist leader who promises to be a servant of the people turning out to be a comedian.

Zelensky’s ability to handle the visual medium in his previous career is proving to be effective as he speaks to his compatriots and the outside world, vowing resistance and pleading for help. Unlike some other populist leaders who appear immaculately dressed and manicured, in carefully arranged set-pieces, Zelensky had projected the image of a leader who is willing to share the hardships of fellow citizens.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, appeared in meetings where he sat at the head of extra-long tables while his officials sat at the far end, giving an image of a man who has distanced himself from reality.

Russian President Vladimir Putin | Photo: AP

One undesirable consequence of the cyberwar is that it makes the war look glamorous, with pretty women in battle fatigues and gun-toting civilians mouthing heroic statements while clips that seem to show people stealing enemy tanks and learning to make Molotov cocktails go viral.

War, however, is indiscriminate, and everyone in its vicinity becomes a victim in one way or the other. But that is seldom conveyed in tales of such glorious battles.

Take any Second World War movie, and you will see well-groomed young, handsome actors going through the actions. Contrast that with the sufferings narrated by soldiers on all sides in Antony Beevor’s three-part bestseller Stalingrad.

As the quote widely attributed to Bertrand Russel says: “A war doesn’t determine who is right, only who is left.”

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