The Evolution of Cyber Campaigns in Russia’s Near Abroad (and Beyond), from the 1990s to the Present


At the Graduate Research Forum of the Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International History, Benjamin Smalley (University of Toronto) will present a paper on "The Evolution of Cyber Campaigns in Russia’s Near Abroad (and Beyond), from the 1990s to the Present." Cyber operations are used by adversaries to achieve political-security objectives in many conflicts, from the overt hostilities of the 1990s in Chechnya and Kosovo to the influence and infrastructure operations in Ukraine and the US seen more recently. Competition in the cyber domain often occurs at levels calculated to avoid retaliation, but occasionally coincides with conventional military deployment. Russia is frequently accused of perpetrating disruptive cyber operations in bordering states, but the challenge of attribution, involvement of non-state actors, and untested norms of international law—particularly the law of armed conflict applied to cyber operations—make it difficult to protect networks, and punish actors responsible for attack. This talk examines the geopolitical conditions that influence the choice to deploy cyber tools, and investigates how these tools have shaped the outcomes of conflict and the overall geopolitical landscape, over the past twenty years in Russia’s near abroad, linking the original conditions with the outcomes of conflict to determine whether or what Russia has gained. Observable changes form the basis for characterizing decision-making about the portfolio of means deployed in conflict, and helps to infer Russian political-security objectives.