Call for cyberwar rules as US attacks Russia

Threat: “We will impose costs on you until you get the point,” says John Bolton, US Security Chief.

Does the world need new rules of war? Yesterday, we learned that the US has placed malware deep in Russia’s power grid. Elsewhere, most of Argentina was mysteriously plunged into darkness.

The article on the front page of the respected New York Times was unusually long, prominent and detailed.

The US National Security Council (the president’s top security committee) had no comment, but told the paper it had no concerns with the accuracy of the details.

Today, the world is waking up to the realisation that the report is probably true and that cyberwar is far more advanced than we thought.

It is not just America and Russia. China, Israel and Britain are also “cyber superpowers” and are deeply involved. Iran and North Korea are catching up.

By uncanny coincidence, at 10am yesterday as local elections began in Argentina, a massive electrical failure — one of the biggest ever in South America — left millions of people in the dark in Argentina and in Uruguay.

There is no clue what caused it. But a cyberattack has not been ruled out.

Today, there are already calls for a new set of international rules similar to the Geneva Conventions to protect innocent people from cyberwar.

There are specific demands that no country should be allowed to cut the electrical power to another country, plunging citizens into darkness and threatening hospitals, transport, schools and the frail and elderly.

“The world needs norms to govern cyber conflict, and one should be not to turn off the lights,” said one leading US commentator.

But US military officials argue that it is the new reality, a new Cold War. Enemies must demonstrate their superior powers to each other, otherwise they lose. And it is far better than real war, “hot” war.

So what, after all, did The New York Times reveal?

The US has deployed American computer code into Russian systems operating the nation’s power grid, as part of its strategy to deploy cybertools more aggressively.

This means that it can now switch off Russian power, an especially deadly threat in a country famed for its cold climate.

It has done this both as a warning and as a way to build retaliatory capabilities in the event of a “major conflict [...] between Washington and Moscow”.

“We’re saying to Russia, or anybody else that’s engaged in cyber-operations against us, ‘You will pay a price’, ” said John Bolton, US National Security Advisor.

High stakes?

“Idiotic,” say the doves. This is war by other means, and every bit as dangerous and immoral as the nuclear race that led to the Cold War. For one nation to plant codes in another nation, and then threaten to switch off its energy is the sort of aggression that can only lead to a similar response. Where does that get us?

“Face the facts,” say the hawks. Russia has been engaged in cyberwar against the US for years. Interference in the 2016 presidential elections. Well-recorded attempts to hack into the nuclear power station in Nebraksa. Other examples, too many to cite. The only way to guarantee peace is to make sure the power stays with the good guys, and that means the USA – at least when compared to any other superpower.

You Decide

  1. Is electricity now the most important weapon?
  2. Do rules of war make sense?


  1. Imagine you had to live without power for 24 hours. List the five worst things about it.
  2. Write a sci-fi short story. It is 2025 and full-scale cyberwar has engulfed the world. Write a description of a young person trying to cope.

Some People Say...

“We worried for decades about WMDs – Weapons of Mass Destruction. Now it is time to worry about a new kind of WMDs – Weapons of Mass Disruption.”

John Mariotti, US business writer

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The head of US Cyber Command, Gen. Paul M Nakasone, has been outspoken about the need to “defend forward” deep in an adversary’s networks to demonstrate that the US will respond to online attacks aimed at it. Donald Trump issued new authorities to Cyber Command last summer, in a still-classified document known as “National Security Presidential Memoranda 13”, giving far more leeway to conduct offensive online operations without receiving presidential approval.
What do we not know?
How Putin’s government is reacting. Russia has been very quiet so far.

Word Watch

Geneva Conventions
Launched in 1863, a series of international diplomatic meetings that produced a number of agreements, in particular the Humanitarian Law of Armed Conflicts, a group of international laws for the humane treatment of wounded or captured military personnel.
Cold War.
A long period of tension between western democracies and Russia and its allies from1945 to around 1990. It played out through a huge build-up of nuclear weapons on both sides and proxy wars fought in places such as Vietnam and Afghanistan.
Retaliatory capabilities
The power to fight back.
National Security Advisor.
The chief adviser to a national government on matters of security. He or she is not usually a member of the government’s cabinet, but is usually a member of various military or security councils. (In the US, ‘advisor’ is the common spelling for a job title.)
People who try to resolve international conflicts without the threat of force.
People who advocate an aggressive foreign policy based on strong military power.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.