A Few Words on War Memorials and Cyber-Attacks

A Few Words on War Memorials and Cyber-Attacks

A story that has been getting a bit of play in Europe but not as much on this side of the Atlantic is the dispute over the placement of a war memorial in Estonia. In April the Estonian government removed from its capital a memorial to Soviet soldiers who fought in WW II. Estonia’s ethnic Russian minority—and Russia—were furious. There were riots in the streets and angry words in the corridors of power. This argument over history and taken a decidedly futuristic turn, though, as the Estonian government seems to now be under cyber-attack. The BBC reports:

Websites of the tiny Baltic state’s government, political parties, media and business community have had to shut down temporarily after being hit by denial-of-service attacks, which swamp them with external requests.

Some sites were defaced to redirect users to images of Soviet soldiers and quotations from Martin Luther King about resisting “evil”.

And hackers who hit the ruling Reform Party’s website at the height of the tension on 29 April left a spurious message that the Estonian prime minister and his government were asking forgiveness of Russians and promising to return the statue to its original site.

Estonia has sought assistance from NATO and the EU to counter the attacks, which the view as being quite serious. Moreover, the Russian government itself may be involved, as opposed to just a bunch of irate tech-savvy 13 year olds with a penchant for WWII statuary.

“Of course [sites] can be put up again, but they can be attacked also again,” Mikhail Tammet, head of IT security at the Estonian defence ministry, told BBC World Service’s Newshour programme.

Estonia, he said, depended largely on the internet because of the country’s “paperless government” and web-based banking.

“If these services are made slower, we of course lose economically,” he added.
While the government in Tallinn has not blamed the Russian authorities directly for the attacks, its foreign ministry has published a list of IP addresses “where the attacks were made from”.

The alleged offenders include addresses in the Russian government and presidential administration.

The Russian government emphatically denies any involvement, noting that IP addresses can be faked. Other Internet experts interviewed by the BBC tended to agree, noting that the technology required to undertake such attacks is low and there were many people upset over the removal of the statutue. Perhaps irate 13 year-olds after all.

This is a relatively small story but it points out two issues worthy of greater attention. First, the simmering issues concerning Russian policy towards former Soviet republics with sizable Russian minorities. Regardless as to whether the Kremlin sponsored the attcks, there is still a significant diplomatic debacle, that Russia is willing to pursue, over the placement of a statue. This has led to recriminations by both the EU and Russia that each does not understand the other. (See the links from Daniel Drezner’s post on the 2007 Brussels Forum.) Russia, emboldened by its mountain of money from-and crucial position in—the gas market is taking on increasingly aggressive stances vis a vis such former republics as Estonia, Georgia, and Moldova. As Russia moves towards its own Presidential election in the next year, US-Russian relations will need greater attention, beyond arguments over missile shields.

Second, the “super-empowered individuals” that Thomas Friedman had been writing about for a few years are here. They may be teenagers or they may be covert ops specialists but, either way, they can deny a sophisticated European government part of its infrastructure.

And that is no laughing matter.

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Benjamin Davis
Benjamin Davis

Soon after the fall of the Soviet Union I was in Estonia as a guest of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry. One must remember that Stalin deported numbers of Estonians to Siberia in his day – a subject of very poignant Estonian literature. Estonia was a prized posting for Russian military persons and of course was a Baltic sea base. So there is much history about the arrival of the Russians in Estonia and much pain about all of this. That being said, there was a very vigorous effort by the EU to block efforts to strip the local Russians of Estonian nationality in the early 90’s. The result has not been very pretty but it seemed doable. I believe it was better than proposals in Lithuania and Latvia at the time. The price of EU admission (and money) was some kind of accommodation with this large Russian minority. Russia seems to react to Estonia like Syria does to Lebanon – it considers the country it’s backyard – a former posting place for Peter the Great’s court favorites. Russia’s moods will ebb and flow. I just hope that we still have the courage to stand with the Estonians –… Read more »