Until recently, cyberspace in Russia was largely considered a zone of relatively free expression and little state involvement. Following the rallies of the Russian opposition in 2011-2012 and the onset of the Arab Spring – in both of which the Internet played a significant role – cyberspace in the eyes of the Kremlin transformed from a haven for marginalized dissenters into a real threat to the status quo. 

Since 2012, the Kremlin has introduced a number of initiatives not necessarily aimed at regulating the Russian Internet (RuNet), but rather, at instilling distrust among the Russian public. The geopolitical confrontation with the West only pushed these efforts at bolstering digital autonomy even further with an added emphasis on protection from foreign challengers.

The geopolitical tensions resulting from conflicts in Ukraine and Syria also prompted online consequences with Russian banks targeted by Turkish hackers and Ukrainian infrastructure facilities reportedly attacked by a virus sent by Russian Special Forces. Such examples of using cyber capabilities as part of a bigger military confrontation reflect a new reality dominated by information and communications technology that might be called a “cyber-enabled war.” This new reality lacks clear rules of the game and is becoming dangerous as major powers – including the U.S., China and Russia – are actively working on building their cyber capabilities. 

Military cyber capability is increasingly becoming the trump card many nations would like to obtain for any possible future conflict, and this spiral of weaponization can hardly be stopped at the moment. To ensure critical infrastructure at the national level is protected and the risks to international peace and stability are avoided, countries will need to establish viable platforms for dialogue and agree on principles of conduct in cyberspace.

The authors of the report are Stanislav Budnitskiy, a Ph.D. Candidate at Carleton University in Ottawa and a Visiting Scholar at the Centre for Global Communication Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, and Alexandra Kulikova, the Global Stakeholder Engagement Manager for Eastern Europe and Central Asia at the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).

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