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Monday 2 March 2020

The role of the Balkans in the geopolitics of cyber security

Lucas Kello, David Madden and Cvete Koneska

Lucas Kello and Cvete Koneska spoke at a SEESOX seminar on 26 February. David Madden chaired.

Lucas Kello said that South East Europe was important both to the West and to Russia. This was an unchanging geopolitical fact, and it was inevitable therefore that Russian capabilities and innovative thinking in terms of cyberspace should be deployed in the region. Russia was very active in sowing and exploiting political and social divisions, weakening Western societies from within, and slowing down NATO expansion and/or diminishing its internal cohesion by non-violent means. Flash points, elections and lack of trust between governments and oppositions all provided opportunities.

Subsequently, in answer to a question, he detailed a number of ways of interfering in the election process: compromat, and making use of politically damaging information; compromising the machinery used to collect, register and count votes; attacking the voter registration system; and making it known that a system or systems had been compromised.

Cvete Koneska concentrated on vulnerabilities as well as capabilities and intent. South East Europe was a hot spot of cyber activity, not least because of poor critical infrastructures, weak rule of law, low level of trust in institutions and lack of cyber literacy at the state level (and a more general absence of media literacy). The region was a particular target because of its connections with both the EU and NATO, and often viewed as a weak link. Cyber attacks ranged from the fully malicious to the plain embarrassing. The solution was to address the societal vulnerabilities, and especially the trust and rule of law issues: but that was easier said than done.
They then responded to a wide range of questions from the audience. Much of the toxicity in political debate was domestic in nature, rather than artfully injected from without; and this was true in many countries, not just in the Balkans. But it was there to be used and exploited. Democracies were naturally more open to political attack and meddling than were autocracies. There were measures democracies would not take because they cherished liberties: though they would of course stop criminality and illegality. In the region, there tended to be a mismatch between state capacities, and popular capabilities – especially among the young. If a cyber attack led to death and destruction it would meet the NATO legal criteria for a deliberate armed attack, and the triggering of Article 5: though how to respond would naturally be a political decision.

David Madden (Chair, SEESOX Steering Committee; Distinguished Friend of St Antony's)

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