The former president of Estonia: This means (cyber) war!

The Estonians moved a statue; the Russians launched a new form of warfare. Now, a decade later, the man who was president of Estonia at the time proposes a new sort of alliance to counter a threat that has spread far from his Baltic state.

Toomas Hendrik Ilves had been president of Estonia for all of six months in April 2007 when his government moved the “Bronze Soldier” Soviet war memorial from a small park in central Tallinn to a nearby military cemetery. The Russian government responded with a distributed denial of services (DDoS) attack.

At the time, the Estonian defense minister said this: “Not a single NATO defense minister would define a cyber-attack as a clear military action at present. However, this matter needs to be resolved in the near future.”

Ten years later it hasn’t been resolved. Despite a mountain of recent, suspected-and-proven Russian meddling in democratic politics of the United States, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, the European Parliament and elsewhere, the question remains. Ilves, who served as Estonian president through 2016 and is now a visiting fellow at Stanford University, says it’s time to do something about it.

His solution, he says, has been proposed before by the likes of former U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright and U.S. Sen. John McCain. It would be a “community or league of democracies,” he told the U.S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism on March 15, “a new form of defense organization, a non-geographical but strict criteria-based organization to defend democracies….”

Why this, and why now? With cyber warfare — including DDoS attacks, deliberate hacking of critical infrastructure such as power plants and communications systems, and yes, election-disrupting doxing and fake news — there are no boundaries. NATO may remain indispensable, but, as he puts it, “Today, unconstrained by the limits of kinetic war, by the range of missiles and bombers, by the logistics needed to support an armored division, we can succumb instead to digital aggression.”

Democracies can play the cyber-warfare game, too, of course: remember Stuxnet? But Ilves says that the sorts of information warfare threatening western democracies is asymmetrical. You can’t manipulate an election in which the autocrats count the votes; nor does hacking, say Kim Jong-un’s or Vladimir Putin’s email accounts and publishing juicy excerpts do much good when they control the media or will have you killed.

Ilves sees the irony in of all this.

“Only a few years ago we believed that the Internet and social media would be a tool of liberation,” he said. “Instead we face a dystopian landscape. These are not tools of democracy but rather are turned into tools against democracy through manipulating the electoral process…. We see our own societies under threat from fake news, by antidemocratic, often racist rhetoric that drowns out the voices of reason.

“Let’s not mince words,” continued Ilves, whom the Huffington Post recently described as a bowtie-wearing badass. “This is subversion and ultimately warfare against liberal democracies.”

Democracies have their own leverage, Ilves said.

“Adversaries want to vacation here; park their laundered money in safe, rule-of-law countries; buy real estate that an authoritarian leader cannot confiscate. We can investigate money laundering, especially in the countries favored by the adversaries, and take appropriate action,” he said. “We can make it hard for the children of the regime to study in the West or to live here on stolen riches.”

But, he concluded, democracies must unite in new ways to make it happen.

“It will take much hard work to create such a pact,” Ilves said. “but those who would undermine our democracies are already hard at work.”

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