An inter-office squabble could have triggered a Baltic cyber-war

A Russian official speaking on an infowar panel last week revealed that his assistant was responsible for the 2007 cyber-attacks that crippled the nation of Estonia. The only person surprised was Nargiz Asadova, the moderator of the discussion.

Sadly, the statement by Sergei Markov, an official from the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party, has garnered only mild interest in the general press. (Almost no one I queried Tuesday even remembered the attacks, which knee-capped financial and government institutions as well as the nation's Internet traffic. It was started over the proposed relocation of a statue. Seriously.) Markov claimed that the assistant, whom he refused to name lest it imperil the man's visa applications, undertook the act as a patriotic gesture against perceived fascism (in, again, the relocation of a statue).

Everyone who remembers anything about Soviet-era rhetoric is invited to meditate on the term "patriotic gesture" and take a deep, deep breath at this juncture. Markov continued, stating that the attack escalated because "this was merely the reaction of the civil society and, incidentally, it will happen more and more." Another deep breath before we continue?

A bit of digging on the part of observers revealed that the "assistant" is most likely one Konstantin Goloskokov, who has previously admitted to the act. Goloskokov heads the nationalist "Nashi" youth movement, regarded in many quarters as a personality cult for Kremlin puppetmaster Vladimir Putin. And maybe it's the Watchmen ticket talking, but I'm hard-pressed to decide what disturbs me more -- that the Estonian attacks really did probably start with this one jackass, or that the jackass stables in that particular barn.

Back in the '80s, when Dr. Manhattan roamed the earth the thought of nuclear war between the two then-superpowers shaped the lion's share of our international policy, we lived in fear of "one guy with his finger on the button," the single event that somehow evades all the failsafes and snowballs into holocaust. It never happened -- it nearly happened a few times, as we continue to learn, but the arms-race era ended with the flowering of democracy, not nuclear winter. No single Russian or American, no matter how aggrieved or panicked or crazy, managed to start World War III.

But the conflicts that did occur, Cuba and Afghanistan and Grenada and Korea and all those other proxy wars that the US and USSR used to make their points to each other? Those weren't started by one guy either.

The Estonia attack, on the other hand -- either we now have to believe the latest Russian take on this tale (after two years of denial) and concede that one guy was capable of starting his very own shooting war, or we have to ask if our Russian allies are being less than truthful about how many in the government knew, sanctioned, or supported the acts of cyberwar against Estonia. (Officials in that nation are, by the way, not inclined toward the lone-gunman theory, stating that the hacking effort was proven by examiners to be far too coordinated and widespread to be the work of one person.)

If at last Russia's telling the truth, it's a chilling illustration of just how much more difficult national security is in the post-superpower world -- and how desperately our own cyberwar planning requires not just military intelligence, with its nation-state worldview, but direction from the private sector with its greater understanding of how individual actors can affect the system. Rod Beckstrom was just making this point about the National Cybersecurity Center, in fact; pity it was in his NCSC resignation letter. And if they're not, well, the fact that an official could even front this as a plausible story says it all.

There's one more option, though: In recent days, some observers have claimed that Markov was only joking. Those wacky Russians and their flavorful humor, right? But in an era in which virtually every developed nation believes that the next war is likely to take place at least in part in cyberspace, it's a joke with no palatable punchline -- only, for states menaced by an increasingly cranky Russia, the thinly veiled threat of another punch.

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