Pesky Reds under the bed - again
From Hollywood dramas to global politics, Russia has done sterling service as the West’s arch-fiend for nearly 70 years.
Last week saw Russia being cast in not one, but two of its classic roles as a global villain. After the suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria, Russia emerged as the prime defender of its brutal henchmen in the Assad regime. Here at home, Russia was also fingered as a serious cyber threat to New Zealand’s economic well-being.
Unfortunately, it was somewhat fuzzy as to just how imminent this threat from Moscow might be. The GCSB and its brother intelligence agencies overseas were unclear whether this ‘‘ fresh wave’’ of Russianfunded cyber attacks had (a) already been launched or (b) were merely being ‘‘geared up’’ for launch at some future date, if sufficient precautions were not taken.
Certainly, the numbers being cited by GCSB director-general Andrew Hampton about recent cyber activity were not particularly alarming. In the year to November, only 122 of 396 reported cyber incidents originated from offshore, with Russia’s state-sponsored hackers being allegedly behind only ‘‘some’’ of them.
That’s only 11 incidents per month on average, from all sources: Russia, North Korea, China, and Eastern Europe. Oddly, China was not mentioned last week. Last December, though, released GSCB documents had warned of a foreign nation attempting to access ‘‘sensitive government and private sector information’’ and ‘‘unduly influence expatriate communities’’ – which sounds far more like China, than Russia.
As usual with security issues, there are more questions than answers. Even if Russia is already, or is about to be, engaged in more of this bad stuff, by how much would this exceed (if at all) the cyber intrusions to which the GCSB has been a party, alongside our deeply offended British, Australian and US allies?
Basically, every developed nation is engaged in cyber attacks and cyber defences. No doubt, some countries carry out this activity on an industrial scale. Problem being, we have significant trade links with all of them. As New Zealand tries to pursue an independent foreign policy there is a genuine tension between our defence/security alliances (which regard China and Russia as enemies) and our trading patterns, in which China is our most important partner.
To further complicate the mix, furthering an FTA with the European Union has been identified as our top 2018 trade priority. For that reason (among others) Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern could hardly afford to be at odds with her French, German and British hosts last week, when it came to the EU’s hostile stance towards Russia over Salisbury, and Syria.
These Cold War similarities, however, can be misleading. However nostalgic Vladimir Putin’s apologists in the West may be, modern Russia is not the Soviet Union. Moreover, Donald Trump appears willing to be at odds with both Congress and his own Republican Party when it comes to the White House’s readiness to pursue a softer line towards Moscow.
Fortunately, the coalition government does not seem unduly excited about any Red threat that may be lurking in our routers. Hopefully, New Zealand can navigate its way safely between the rocks of our competing interests on security and trade.
‘‘ As New Zealand tries to pursue an independent foreign policy there is a genuine tension between our defence/security alliances (which regard China and Russia as enemies) and our trading patterns, in which China is our most important partner.’’