Cyber war against Estonia?

This New York Times story, “Estonia Computers Blitzed, Possibly by the Russians,” strikes me as pregnant with implications that reach far beyond the Russo-Estonian dispute over the removal of a Soviet monument commemorating the “Great Patriotic War.”

The Times reports that Estonian officials have blamed Russia for a series of attacks on its government websites, although the Russian government has denied involvement.

I found this statement striking, however: “‘If you have a missile attack against, let’s say, an airport, it is an act of war,’ a spokesman for the Estonian Defense Ministry, Madis Mikko, said Friday in a telephone interview. ‘If the same result is caused by computers, then how else do you describe that kind of attack?'”

What is the value of an alliance like NATO, designed to protect the people and physical infrastructure of an alliance member from attack, in an age when threats may increasingly be of the sort described in this story, attacks on the virtual infrastructure that are increasingly the source of prosperity for countries like Estonia?

If NATO — and other standing alliances among democracies, like the US-Japan alliance — are incapable of deterring new, unconventional threats that target a country’s vehicles of wealth creation in ways short of what is recognized as war, can those alliances survive without substantial change?

While the details of the campaign against Estonia have yet to be elucidated, this incident strikes me as a harbinger of something with which all developed countries will have to contend: as the risks of interstate conventional warfare diminish, states will have to contend with new ways for states to flex their muscles in disputes with other states. Are existing alliances and international organizations up to the task?

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