The ramifications of Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from the Turkish-Syrian border continues to have a seismic effect on the situation in northern Syria.
Faced with the Turkish invasion of northern Syria, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) who controlled the area were forced to make compromises. On October 13, they announced a deal with the Syrian army, which began moving troops towards the Turkish border. A five-day ceasefire was brokered by the US on October 18, during which Turkey agreed to pause its offensive to allow Kurdish forces to withdraw.
For many, the SDF proved itself to be the most effective force in the fight against Islamic State (IS). Turkey, however, considers the SDF as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which it, the US and EU label as a terrorist organisation.
But behind this lies a long history of Turkey denying the very existence of the Kurdish conflict, and the political and cultural rights of its Kurdish population. Understanding this history helps explain why the conflict is so intractable, and the impact it continues to have on Turkey’s foreign policy choices.
No room in the nation state
The Kurdish conflict cannot be understood without considering the question of power and exclusion. Its origins go back to the mid-19th century when the Ottomans attempted to end the 300-year-old autonomy of the Kurdish principalities in Kurdistan. This struggle for autonomy wasn’t resolved during the rule of the Ottoman era, and when it collapsed, all of the new nation states that eventually emerged – Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran – inherited their own Kurdish conflict.
The Turks and the Kurds fought a successful war of independence together in 1919 against the Allied forces. Nevertheless, when the new Republic of Turkey was established in 1923, Turkish identity was presented as its unifying force, at the expense of the society’s political, social and cultural differences.
Not only was political power further centralised in Ankara, but the domination of the ethnic, Turkish and Sunni majority became the norm. The decision to create a centralised and homogeneous nation state was implemented in a top-down and violent fashion. The seeds of the long-term problems that Turkish and Kurdish communities confront today were created by this decision.
Various Kurdish groups challenged this new social and political order with different revolts, uprisings, and resistance, but these were violently suppressed. Repressive policies of assimilation were later implemented to transform the Kurds into civilised and secular Turks.
A conflict buried
The Kurdish conflict laid buried for many years. Then, the most serious challenge to Turkey’s nation state project was initiated by the PKK in 1984, which embraced a political agenda called democratic autonomy. The violent struggle between Ankara and the PKK has resulted in a huge economic and human cost.
Peace talks which began in 2013 with the PKK’s jailed leader Abdullah Öcalan were widely considered to be the best chance for ending the conflict, but these collapsed in 2015. This led to increasing violence in the form of a destructive armed conflict in southeastern Turkey and a wave of bombings, including in Ankara and Istanbul.
The resolution of intractable conflicts is only possible when conflicted parties can confront their past and learn from it. In 2015, amid attempts by Turkish opposition parties to reopen peace negotiations with the Kurds, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan insisted: “There is no Kurdish conflict”. Such positioning, which continues today, keeps the political dimension of the conflict in the background.
The state carefully controls what can and cannot be said about the conflict. Typically, words such as “terror” and “traitor” are used to criminalise those who criticise government policy towards the Kurds. A group of academics who signed a petition in 2016 calling for the resumption of peace talks were charged with making “terrorism propaganda”. The non-violent wing of the Kurdish movement – activists, politicians, political parties – has also been criminalised.
Instead of confronting their failure to bring about peace, Turkish political elites have tried to apportion blame elsewhere. Erdoğan, for example, repeatedly refers to an invisible “mastermind” who orchestrates the PKK. Such rhetoric is deployed to play on the collective fear and anxiety about national security felt by parts of Turkish society.
Some have called this the “Sèvres syndrome” – referring to the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres that marked the end of the Ottoman empire and proposed to divide it into small states and occupation zones. The treaty was never implemented, and superseded by the 1923 Lausanne Treaty which recognised the Republic of Turkey.
This syndrome – also referred to as “Sèvres Paranoia” – in essence reflects the collective fear that the Treaty of Sèvres will be revived and that the Turkish state is encircled by enemies who want to divide and weaken the country.
Today, this line of thinking is an integral part of Turkish political life and continues to influence public perception towards the external world. In a 2006 public opinion survey, for example, 78% of participants agreed that “the West wants to divide and break up Turkey like they broke up the Ottoman Empire”.
In this way, the Kurdish conflict has been used to mobilise Turkish society to act against its own collective interest: a peaceful and just society. Policies aimed at managing the conflict have been implemented mostly within a state of emergency, in ways that continue to undermine Turkish democracy. Not only has the tremendous economic and human cost of the conflict become a “normal” part of Turkish life, but the state has also been successful in actively keeping the political dimension of the conflict at bay.
For a long time, Turkey refrained from talking about the Kurdish issue by assuming that it would eventually fade away. But it didn’t and instead, the conflict has become more deeply entrenched. Time will tell whether the Turkish state will ultimately gain or lose by its latest military intervention in Syria. However, what’s clear is that the Kurdish conflict will get more complicated with this latest move, and both the Turkish state and Turkish society will no longer be able to ignore it.
Turkey did not waste much time in launching an attack on Syrian soil just days after US President Donald Trump announced he would withdraw US forces from northern Syria. As this development opens a new chapter in Syria, Turkey maybe unwittingly sinking deeper into that country’s civil war.
This is not the first time president Trump has mentioned withdrawal from Syria – he voiced it in April 2018.
The US government has always been tentative with its Syrian policy, which was openly exploited by Russia in its bid to support the Assad government’s grip on power in the embattled country.
It is also not the first time Turkey has talked about a military presence in Syria. In January 2018, it sent troops to north-western Syria, establishing its control over lands to the west of the Euphrates river. Turkey has increased its military build up on the Syrian border ever since.
The US contained any further Turkish advances by making it clear Turkey was not welcome to the east of the river, especially when the US needed the support of Kurdish forces in ending Islamic States’s presence in Syria.
Why does Turkey want to increase its military presence in Syria?
There are three main reasons Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is eager to send more troops in to northern Syria east of the Euphrates river.
The first is the prospect of free Kurdish states near its borders inspiring the sizeable Kurdish populations in the south east of Turkey to seek similar aspirations. Northern Iraq is slowly moving towards independence. If Kurds in northern Syria were to establish an autonomous region, it would only be a matter of time before the same demands were raised in Turkey.
Fearing this development, Erdogan has pursued an increasingly tough policy on Kurdish political activities in Turkey. The leader of pro-Kurdish party HDP, Selahattin Demirtas, has been in jail for almost three years.
Turkey’s second concern is the reported 3.5 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey since the conflict began in 2011. Although they were initially welcomed with open arms, there is growing discontent in the Turkish media and society, with many calling for their return.
Opposition parties have been critical of the Erdogan government’s inability to effectively manage the refugee crisis, which was one of the key issues that led to Erdogan’s loss in this year’s Istanbul elections.
Erdogan plans to create a safe zone in Northern Syria, establish new settlements within this region and slowly move Arab Syrian refugees back to Syria. This will change the demographics of the region and undermine Kurdish dominance.
Erdogan’s third aim is to make a political investment for future elections. This may be the most important reason, as Erdogan first mentioned a military offensive in Syria soon after his local government election loss in June 2019.
The Turkish leader needs the coalition with MHP, the nationalist party, to maintain his grip on power and enhance his chance of re-election. He needs a war to unify his electorate, please his coalition partner and silence the growing critical voices in the midst of a worsening Turkish economy.
Erdogan made strong hints in August he would send troops to northern Syria against the US-allied YPG, which Turkey considers to be a terrorist group. He was most likely testing international, especially US, reaction. The US responded by offering a joint operation in the region.
It appears Erdogan thought the US involvement was limiting his goals and wasting his time. Perhaps he reasoned the timing was right to make a bold move when Trump was politically weakened by an impeachment inquiry.
It seems Erdogan’s strategy worked. Trump agreed to withdraw from Syria on the condition Turkey took responsibility for handling thousands of IS prisoners and their families in camps.
Trump added a threat to “totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey” if it was to do anything considered “off-limits”. But the move was still a green light for Turkey to send troops to Syria.
What is likely to happen now?
Trump’s announcement does not mean the US is pulling out of Syria completely. It’s likely the US will continue to have a presence in eastern Syria to watch developments closely and intervene if the situation deteriorates.
A total pull-out would further weaken Trump. He would not want to risk the already-waning Republican party’s support over concerns about a resurgence of IS in Syria.
Russia seems to be pleased with the developments. Putin knows the US withdrawal means greater Russian influence and shores up the Assad government. Since Erdogan does everything with full Russian endorsement, their close collaboration gives Russia leverage in its political and diplomatic struggle with the NATO.
One possibility is that Turkish forces do not face much resistance. They would then only advance to a limited region, with their stated aim of establishing a safe zone and returning Syrian refugees back to Syria. This may contain the situation without further escalation.
Another possibility is that the US abandoning its protection of the Kurdish YPG forces in northern Syria will have a cascading effects. A sizeable portion of Kurdish civilians may be displaced, and some may flee in advance, fearing the worst.
The Kurdish YPG forces may initially avoid open conflict with the advancing Turkish forces, and look for new alliances in Syria. The most likely candidate for this is Assad, who may see an opportunity to bring the Kurdish populations and regions under his control.
If an Assad-Kurdish partnership eventuates, Turkish forces may be drawn into the war within Syria.
Kurdish populations in Turkey may then become involved, threatening Turkey with what it fears the most – a Kurdish insurrection within its own borders.
A wave of protests rocked Moscow and scores of other cities across Russia between 2011 and 2013. The demonstrators called for free and fair elections and some even demanded an end to the Putin regime. Many Russian commentators argued these mass protests were spearheaded by members of the urban middle class, and the world’s media concurred.
History has shown that where there is expansion of the middle class, democracy develops alongside. As the middle class accumulates wealth and property, it develops a vested interest in stability and the rule of law, promoting the development of a set of democratic checks and balances on the government.
Often seen as a bastion of democracy, Russia’s middle class is popularly regarded as a major source of opposition to the Putin regime. But does it give more support to democratic values, such as support for free and fair elections, a free press and a pluralistic political system, than other classes?
Divisions have weakened the solidarity of the Russian middle class and questioned its role as a catalyst for democratic change. That crucial dividing line is between those who depend on the state for their livelihood and those who work in the non-state sectors of the economy. As commentator Andrei Kolesnikov puts it:
The … end of the post-Soviet transition created a specific kind of middle class: one that grew out of oil and gas deposits, one that demanded both bread and circuses … But there is another middle class, too, born out of something very different … the giant army of state officials and public sector workers. Then there are the security services, investigators, prosecutors, judges: the backbone of the state. The class of people working not just directly for the state but also for state corporations and banks, and private structures whose existence depends entirely on connections with the state and officialdom.
My research reveals that most of the middle class support Putin, and given the choice, will opt for stability and the political status quo, rather than risk the uncertainties brought about by democratic reforms.
Who are Russia’s middle class?
So what factors influence who belongs to the middle class? Economists focus on income and property. But defining the middle class this way fails to explain how such a diverse group of individuals could develop a shared class identity or consciousness. Income-based approaches really define middle “layers” rather than classes, and fail to capture low-income citizens who, according to other criteria such as education and occupation, would qualify for middle-class status.
Sociologists, in contrast, stress divisions between employers and employees, as well as those between “manual” and “mental” labour, and add other criteria, such as education and occupation, to those of income.
In a survey of 4,000 citizens carried out in collaboration with the Russian Institute of Sociology, we found that just 26% of the respondents could be defined as middle class, based on individuals who met criteria in three areas: income – an average monthly income not lower than the median for the country as a whole; occupation – non-manual “white collar” employees; and education – those with higher education.
Recognising the middle class’s role as a catalyst for economic development, Putin has called for an increase in its size “to encompass 60% of the population”. But his attempts to modernise the country to boost economic growth may end up sowing the seeds of its own destruction. For, as has been widely demonstrated, a society’s public values shift and become more hospitable to democracy as they become wealthier, more industrialised, more urban and better educated.
A state-dependent middle class
But it is important to stress that the middle classes are made up of a diverse group of citizens, each with a variety of political and moral attitudes, and its social composition will vary in different countries. An important factor here is the degree to which members of the middle class are dependent on the state for their livelihood, which is particularly relevant to the Russian middle class.
For example, in Russia, 76.6% of leading managers in the state sector were members of the middle class in 2011 compared to just 33% in 2007. For members of the military and security forces, the percentage of middle-class members grew from 25% in 2007 to 44% in 2011. In 2018, 48% of the Russian middle class were employed in the state sector.
We would expect there to be differences in the interests and values between those who are state-dependent for work and those who work in the private sector, and our study confirms this is the case. But the differences are not very large, and they have narrowed since the outbreak of the civil war in Ukraine
and Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Support for the regime increased substantially in the wake of these developments, as the vast majority of Russian citizens supported Putin’s foreign policy towards Ukraine. Members of both sectors currently prioritise stability and economic security over liberal values, and both express high levels of trust in the Putin regime.
According to our survey, 63% of of state sector workers and 65% of private sector workers supported the idea that “Russia needs to revive national traditions and moral and religious values”, whereas just 37% and 35% respectively, supported the alternative that “Russia should move forward towards a modern way of life, such as in Europe”.
Similarly, 68% of state sector workers and 69% of private sector workers supported “strengthening the state’s power over the economy and politics”, whereas just 32% and 31% respectively, chose the option calling for “the release of citizens from excessive state control”.
Two thirds (66%) of state sector workers and 63% of private sector workers agreed that “it is necessary to introduce moral censorship over the media”, while 34% and 37% respectively, agreed that “the mass media and art should be free from censorship”. Finally, 73% of state sector workers and 64% of private sector workers expressed trust in the president.
In 2019, after almost two decades of Putin, it would appear untrue to say that Russia’s middle class universally supports liberal and democratic values. As has been the case in countries like China, those doing comfortably well seem quite happy to prop up an authoritarian regime if their interests are protected by the state.
According to much of the early commentary, Robert Mueller’s testimony on Wednesday before two US congressional committees was a disappointment.
Democrats are frustrated the special counsel did not make a clear-cut case for impeaching President Donald Trump. Mueller answered questions in the most minimalist way possible, often suggesting congresspersons simply read his report on the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Democrats wanted Mueller to testify in the hope the American public would start paying more attention to his findings on how Trump obstructed justice.
It turned out that Mueller’s testimony was more sophistic than animating. But it did again highlight damning things about the president’s behaviour.
During the hearing, Republicans unimaginatively echoed Trump’s claims of a “witch-hunt” and asserted that the Mueller report turned up no evidence of collusion with Russia during the 2016 election or of obstruction of justice.
Like Attorney-General Bob Barr’s disingenuous summary of the Mueller report, these claims by Republicans this week were not true, but they have created a narrative that Trump is innocent. This claim is given ballast by Republicans’ allegations that FBI agents conducting the Mueller investigations were politically biased because some of them had said negative things about Trump in private correspondence or donated money to the Clinton campaign.
If saying highly negative things about Trump behind closed doors disqualified bureaucrats and politicians from doing their job, Washington DC would grind to a halt. However, in public Republicans are sticking with Trump, doing his bidding in the Congress and tying their fortunes to him at least for the foreseeable future.
Democrats may initiate impeachment proceedings in the House of Representatives, but the trial ultimately occurs in the Senate, where the Republicans have a 53-47 majority. As a result of these numbers and the need for a two-thirds majority vote to dismiss a president, removing Trump from office via impeachment proceedings is very unlikely.
Republicans are showing no signs of abandoning Trump. It is worth remembering that no president has ever been removed from office by the Senate, although two – Bill Clinton and Andrew Johnson – have been impeached by the House of Representatives.
Given these political rather than legal realities, will Democrats continue to push for Trump’s unlikely impeachment? The answer is yes. Although Democratic house leaders led by Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the house, are urging caution, the fresh wave of Democratic congresspersons elected in 2018 who rode a strong wave of anti-Trump sentiment in their congressional districts will continue to push hard for impeachment.
However, this divide can be overstated. As Pelosi’s comments following Mueller’s testimony demonstrate, the fact that Republicans control the Senate and are unlikely to convict the president may not factor into future considerations among the house leadership. Pelosi wants a strong case, not an act of political theatre. As she put it:
The stronger our case is, the worse the Senate will look for just letting the president off the hook.
Pelosi knows that the case against Trump continues to build. Democrats are pursuing the president in federal courts for a number of alleged financial improprieties, and the House Judiciary Committee is preparing to enforce a subpoena against Don McGahn – the former White House Counsel allegedly directed by Trump to fire Mueller during his investigation.
In his testimony on Wednesday, Mueller confirmed that Trump pressured McGahn in yet another attempt to obstruct justice. Those who have read the Mueller report would know that there were many such attempts. These include Michael Flynn’s lies to the FBI about his conversations with Russians during the transition, the pressuring and eventual firing of FBI director James Comey, and the attempted cover-up of Don junior’s meeting with a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower in June 2016 to get whatever dirt he could on Hillary Clinton.
The challenge for Democrats, if they go ahead with impeachment in the House of Representatives, is to articulate a clear case about why such drastic action is justified.
In legal terms, the case that Trump obstructed justice is strong, whereas the case for collusion with Russia is weaker.
It is easy to impute guilt by association with Trump and the Russians. First, there are Trump’s business dealings with Trump Soho and the push to have a Trump Moscow hotel. Then there is Paul Manafort’s close associations with Viktor Yanukovych. Finally, there is Steve Bannon’s appreciation of Putin’s support for ultra right-wing populists across Europe.
However, the Mueller report and his testimony produced no smoking gun. Mueller rightly warned that the Russians have an ongoing campaign to undermine the faith of Americans in democracy. Given the existing levels of frustration and apathy about politics in America, Mueller’s alarm on this issue should be taken seriously. This was one of the few issues that the reluctant witness Mueller became more animated and forceful about.
Many of us are following the vast cast of characters central to the Trump era, the complex details of the Mueller report and Trump’s financial dealings, as well as the congressional hearings into Trump’s behaviour in office.
However, there is a simpler reality to keep in sight. That is that during the Trump presidency, the truth has been more politicised than ever. Increasingly, the truth is presented as a lie and a lie as the truth.
Amid the news last week that the perpetrators responsible for shooting down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) will be put to trial next March, a report was released identifying further suspects responsible for escorting the missile to and from the launch site.
Who were the investigators behind the report? The CIA? MI6? No. It was Bellingcat, a large group of mostly volunteers working from laptops using only information available to anyone with an internet connection.
In February, Bellingcat also identified a third suspect alleged to have been involved in the poisoning of MI6 double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the United Kingdom last year.
Bellingcat describes itself as citizen journalists, but its activities illustrate a growing phenomenon my colleagues and I call “citizen intelligence.” This is work that would count as intelligence gathering or analysis within an intelligence organisation, but it’s undertaken by citizens operating outside the traditional intelligence ecosystem.
The rise of citizen intelligence
Citizen intelligence has been made possible by the internet in various ways.
Since its advent, we’ve seen an explosion of “open source” information. That is, data that’s accessible without any special organisational privileges. For example, just by opening Google Earth you can view satellite data of the kind only available to analysts in government agencies not many years ago.
There are now free new tools for gathering and analysing these vast troves of information, such as the analysis platform Maltego. Aspiring citizen analysts can now train themselves using resources available online or in workshops offered by various organisations.
Expertise in intelligence work is no longer the preserve of those hired and trained by traditional organisations. Powerful collaboration platforms, such as Google Docs, allow interested individuals to work effectively together, even when scattered around the world.
It could get even bigger
We’ve all seen how global, cloud-based marketplaces such as Amazon, Airbnb and Uber have transformed their respective domains. Citizen intelligence could grow even faster if a suitable marketplace is developed. At the SWARM Project, we’ve begun exploring the potential design of a platform where those seeking intelligence can transact with those willing to provide it.
What might that look like? A marketplace for citizen intelligence could be built on a “sponsored challenge” crowdsourcing model.
Imagine an organisation with an intelligence question. Say, for example, the organisation wants to identify potential threats to a proposed infrastructure development in an unstable region. The organisation pays to have the question posed as a challenge on the platform, with a prize for the best answer. Groups of citizen analysts self-organize and submit reports. When the deadline is up, the best report garners the prize – and bragging rights.
Why crowdsourced citizen intelligence could be effective
There are reasons to think that crowdsourced citizen intelligence could match, or outperform, traditional intelligence organisations on some kinds of tasks. Traditional organisations have advantages, such as access to classified information and highly trained analysts, but crowdsourcing has compensating strengths.
Many intelligence organisations are small and under-resourced for the number and complexity of issues they are supposed to handle. Crowdsourced intelligence can potentially draw from much larger pools of citizens. For example, the analytics crowdsourcing platform Kaggle has over a million people signed up, and it gets literally thousands of teams competing on big challenges.
With scale comes diversity. Large groups inherently possess more diverse knowledge, expertise and perspectives. A question like the one in the example above might require fluency in an obscure dialect, or specific technical know-how. No intelligence agency can maintain in-house everything it might need for any problem.
Crowds can be more agile than agencies, which are risk-averse bureaucracies. For example, individuals can more quickly access and use many of the latest analytical methods and tools.
Perhaps most importantly, intelligence work by unpaid volunteers is driven primarily by passion. Passion certainly exists within agencies, but is often stifled in various ways.
The SWARM Project ran a tournament-style experiment in 2018 that illustrated how everyday citizens can sometimes beat the professionals. Teams tackled four tough, fictional intelligence problems over four weeks. Some teams were made up of analysts provided by organisations with intelligence functions, some of analysts recruited via Facebook, and some of citizens (non-analysts) recruited via Facebook.
On average, the citizen teams outperformed the professional analysts – and some of the citizen reports were astonishingly good.
How this could affect the intelligence industry
Citizen intelligence will likely create some headaches for intelligence agencies. For example decision makers might increasingly look to citizen sources over formal intelligence agencies – particularly where citizen intelligence delivers reports more quickly, or with more “convenient” findings.
On the other hand, citizen intelligence could have a lot to offer intelligence organisations. A suitably designed marketplace might enable the traditional agencies to take advantage of the power inherent in the crowd. Such a platform could be a “force multiplier”, at least for certain aspects of intelligence.
In view of these potential threats and opportunities, the Australian intelligence community should get on the front foot, shaping the future of citizen intelligence rather than just reacting to it.
This is a condensed version of a presentation given at the Technology Surprise Forum, Safeguarding Australia Summit, Canberra May 2019
The New York Times reported earlier this month that the United States was increasing its cyber attacks on Russia’s power grid. The attacks are seen as a warning against Russian intrusions into US systems, but one that carries a risk of escalation.
The public reporting of previously covert cyber attacks earned a retort from US President Donald Trump, who accused the New York Times journalists of a “virtual act of treason”.
But the story has been useful in generating discussion about the reasons for – and potential consequences of – such actions. It also raises the question of how vulnerable Australia’s power grid is.
So let’s take a look at who is capable of carrying out these kinds of attacks, how they work, and whether Australia is doing enough to protect itself.
Are these attacks limited to the US and Russia?
Recent events may be newly reported, but the events themselves aren’t that new. Russian cyber attacks on US infrastructure may have been going on for years. According to the New York Times report, the US may have been undertaking similar intrusions in Russia since 2012.
While the story is limited to discussing cyber conflict between the US and Russia, there are many nation states with the ability to carry out such attacks.
To make things more complex, non-government actors can also launch cyber attacks. That includes individuals, organised crime groups, and proxies for nation states.
Why are we learning about this now?
When we talk about cyber security, and how to defend against threats from nation states, we’re usually talking about protecting confidential information. But when it comes to power grids, confidentiality isn’t particularly important. What is important is continuity of service, also called “availability”.
An adversary’s power availability would be a high-priority target during a conflict. Outside of conflict, the only logical rationale for a nation state to intrude on such systems would be to undertake reconnaissance and deploy malware that can remain dormant until needed.
In this regard, it doesn’t make sense that the US would intentionally leak its efforts, as appears to have been the case. It would prompt Russia to find the malware and, by disclosing intrusion techniques, it would “burn capabilities”.
Additionally, evidence of attacks could lead to an escalation of cyberwar between the US and Russia. Escalation is unlikely as long as responses to counter cyber attacks are undertaken in line with the principles of necessity and proportionality. But the uncertainty of attribution and consequences creates a potential for miscalculation in conducting cyber attacks.
The New York Times article was notable because it suggested the US president gave his commanders authorisation to undertake cyber attacks without his oversight. To avoid miscalculation, a balance is needed between a speedy response in cyber “active defence” and the kind of proper deliberation that will ensure the response is appropriate.
To date, there is no evidence that nation-state delivered attacks have resulted in power outages in the US or Russia. The apparent leak to the New York Times may not relate to a specific counterattack against the Russian power grid. Instead, it may be a form of diplomacy intended to signal US willingness and capability to counterattack.
How are such attacks possible?
Critical infrastructure is a term that refers to chemical production plants, power stations, oil platforms, and water pump stations. The technology that operates such infrastructure is called “operational technology” (OT). OT is a cyber-physical system that controls electricity generators and valves that mix chemicals in vats or transfer gas through pipelines.
To understand the threat, it helps to contrast OT with information technology (IT).
Confidentiality is a primary consideration for IT staff, who are focused on securing data from threats. They are well practised in patching vulnerable systems under their control. In an OT environment, availability is the primary driver, so keeping the plant working is considered more important than protecting against cyber threats.
Another difference between the IT and OT worlds is the lifetime of assets. OT system devices are built to last a long time before replacement. Using legacy OT technology that still works in itself is not a problem, as long as that technology is separated from other systems.
But the IT and OT worlds are converging to enable remote control and access to real-time plant operating data. Aside from the tension between priorities of confidentiality and availability, this convergence opens up OT vulnerabilities to attack.
When OT systems were developed decades ago, there was little thought of security, since most systems were only accessible on-site or through dedicated networks. With IT-OT convergence, keeping systems secure becomes a priority, but not at the expense of availability. Stopping a system, either for an update or due to a cyber attack, results in lost revenue and impact upon customers who could, for instance, lose power to their homes.
Have we seen successful attacks in the past?
Cyber attacks on Ukrainian power stations in 2015 and 2016 affected more than 200,000 customers, and provided lessons for the rest of us.
These events showed that an attack was more than just theoretical in the domain of energy systems. Engineers needed to physically visit each substation to return systems to operation.
As similar technology is used worldwide, the power grids of other nations are potentially vulnerable. Additionally, the malware used to command and control attacks is increasingly available for hire as cyber crime moves to a service-based model. And more sophisticated tools mean attackers require less skill to locate and attack internet connected devices.
How vulnerable is Australia’s power grid?
In 2016, Australia’s Chief Scientist Alan Finkel released a review into the future security of the national electricity market. Following advice that the cyber threat to the national energy market was increasing, Finkel recommended stronger security measures be put in place.
By 2017, some action had been initiated to mitigate threats in the energy sector. Subsequently the Security of Critical Infrastructure Act 2018 was passed. The Act contains elements to help the government better appreciate the risk and to make certain directions to service providers to increase security.
The government is reportedly considering a proposal to enable the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) to access the networks of companies operating critical infrastructure to defend them against cyber attacks.
In 2018, the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) released the first annual report into the cyber preparedness of the market, identifying that current provisions are inadequate. AEMO has established a framework for operators to assess their security maturity, and strengthen measures.
For many critical infrastructure systems, OT is a sunk investment that would be expensive to replace. Implementing substantial security improvements to upgrade the legacy energy environment will also be expensive, and it’s likely that costs will be passed onto customers. But there are cost-effective ways of improving security, including threat/vulnerability system monitoring. Some companies in Australia are doing this.
Cyber warfare is a reality. We should expect that cyber criminals and nation states adversaries could have some impact our lives in future by attacking critical infrastructure, such as the electricity grid.
Securing our infrastructure is a priority for the government and increasingly recognised as such by the market participants. The cost and need for security mitigations may seem unpalatable to many, but steps need to be taken to prevent a return to the dark ages.
Dutch prosecutors will launch a criminal trial in The Hague on March 9, 2020. But the accused are beyond the jurisdiction of the court, and will most likely be tried in absentia. This means the accused will not be physically present in the court room.
The prosecutors argue the four accused were jointly responsible for obtaining a BUK TELAR missile launcher (a launcher for self-propelled, surface-to-air missiles allegedly owned by the Russian military) in the city of Kursk, and launching it from Ukraine.
They say the four men are responsible for the atrocity because they had the intention to shoot down an aircraft, and obtained the missile launcher for that purpose.
While investigators have not accused any suspects of actually firing the missile, they say in future they may identify others with that responsibility.
For the victims and their loved ones, these Dutch criminal trials present the best hope of legal acknowledgement for the tragedy.
The MH17 atrocity
On July 17, 2014, flight MH17 was travelling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur when it was shot down over Ukraine.
The Joint Investigative Team (JIT), led by Dutch authorities and comprising investigators from Malaysia, Australia, Belgium and Ukraine, concluded in 2016 that the flight was shot down by a Russian BUK missile.
The JIT identified the launch location as a field in eastern Ukraine, which at the time was in territory controlled by pro-Russian fighters.
The countries central to the investigation – including Australia, which lost 38 people – and the victims’ families have explored a range of legal strategies to assign blame for the attack.
Some civil claims on behalf of victims’ families are ongoing before the European Court of Human Rights.
And hearings are ongoing before the International Court of Justice, where Ukraine seeks to make a case against Russia. Ukraine cites the MH17 atrocity as characteristic of broader Russian aggression and lack of respect for Ukrainian sovereignty and independence.
The Russian Foreign Ministry rejected this week’s announcement, in line with its earlier rejections of the JIT conclusions. It said:
Once again, absolutely groundless accusations are being made against the Russian side, aimed at discrediting the Russian Federation in the eyes of the international community.
Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier called the crash a “terrible tragedy”, but said Russia bore no responsibility for it.
Russian officials have claimed they were prepared to assist the investigation but had been “frozen out” of it.
Who are the accused?
Three of the four accused are Russian nationals, believed to be living in Russia.
Igor Girkin is a former colonel in the Russian security service. At the time of the atrocity, Girkin was the minister of defence in the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, a pro-Russian separatist region of Ukraine.
The other two Russian accused, Sergey Dubinsky and Oleg Pulatov, are former Russian military intelligence agents who worked under Girkin.
Leonid Kharchenko is the only Ukrainian national accused. Investigators are not certain of his current location. At the time of the atrocity, Kharchenko led a separatist combat unit.
The specific charges in relation to the four named suspects will be:
Causing the crash of flight MH17, resulting in the death of all persons on board, punishable pursuant to Article 168 of the Dutch Criminal Code
The murder of the 298 persons on board of flight MH17, punishable pursuant to Article 289 of the Dutch Criminal Code.
The investigation is ongoing and continues to call for witnesses to assist.
What are the prospects for the trial?
Dutch investigators will issue international arrest warrants for the four accused and place them on international wanted lists. But they won’t issue extradition requests because they know already that no extradition of nationals is available under the Ukrainian or Russian constitutions.
It seems impossible for the Dutch court to gain actual jurisdiction over the Russian accused. Potentially, should Ukrainian authorities apprehend Kharchenko, he could be tried via video-link.
The Netherlands and Ukraine have entered into an agreement that would permit such an arrangement and – should Kharchenko be convicted – allow for his imprisonment in Ukraine.
The charges and any penalties originate in Dutch, rather than international, criminal law. Convictions for murder or the intentional downing of an aircraft could result in sentences of up to life imprisonment.
It’s fair to question the value of a prosecution without a court having actual jurisdiction over the accused. The only real answer is that such a trial would enable the presentation and adjudication of evidence and the judgement of a court as to whether charges are made out.
As time goes, the chances of successful prosecutions decline. Meanwhile, interested countries and the victims’ families continue to call for legal redress for the atrocity.
It is also legitimate to ask whether a court can ensure a fair trial for accused persons tried in absentia.
Although it is not explicitly prohibited by international human rights law, the absence of defendants and presumably any legal representative from the courtroom means the accused will not hear the evidence against them or have the ability to present a defence.
Given the four named accused are beyond the actual jurisdiction of the Dutch courts, it can be argued that they (and, at least in the case of Russia, their country) are wilfully avoiding the process of justice. This may be, for some or many observers, sufficient justification for trying them in their absence.