by Professor Dr Thomas Jäger, Chair of International Relations and Foreign Policy, Cologne University, Cologne
The international order is currently undergoing a geopolitical realignment. While the Unites States (US) and China are fixed as the two centres of the future world order, other powers are also striving for a place as world powers. But the prospects for Russia and the European Union (EU) are bleak for different reasons, and India will not be able to assume this role in the foreseeable future either.
In this regard, Russia’s war against Ukraine, which was intended to usher in dominance over Europe, is acting as a catalyst in several directions in cyberspace. First, these capabilities have a major impact on the current war effort. Second, they illustrate the value of technological advances to a politically and economically dominant international position. Third, they redefine the gap with states with lesser cyber capabilities. Fourth, they describe the challenges for a new form of cooperative arms development – or its failure.
A new form of warfighting
Russia’s war against Ukraine is often discussed in terms of analogies of the first world war: trenches, war of attrition, artillery skirmishes. But it could not have been fought by either side without intensive reconnaissance, the close networking of cyber capabilities with other weapons systems. One of Ukraine’s advantages lies precisely in being more effective and efficient here, and therefore faster. The importance of the Starlink satellite service to warfare documents this, as it makes real-time warfare possible.
In addition, a total of 2,194 cyber-attacks were carried out by Russia in Ukraine in 2022 and 1,655 cyber-attacks on civilian infrastructure since the beginning of the war. Such cyber-
attacks have also been registered in other states and campaigns of disinformation have been run by Russia. Throughout the west, companies are said to be weakened by blackmail and trade secrets are stolen. More significant than these current actions, however, is the question of who will have the most advanced capabilities in the future.
Reducing technological dependencies
In order to use the determining advantage for itself in the future, investments in semiconductor production are promoted. Thus, a parallel rivalry for the manufacturing capacities of semiconductors and microchips is being waged. Production capacity is being built in the US and EU to reduce dependence on Taiwan’s TSMC and other companies production abroad. The US has launched a $52bn subsidy through the Chips Act for America 2022, which has since triggered $122bn in investment from TSMC, Intel and Samsung in the US. The EU is in the process of lining up $43bn in subsidies for semiconductor manufacturing in the EU. At the same time, the US has imposed trade restrictions on China to slow China’s progress on semiconductor manufacturing. The Chinese government is already investing heavily and plans to implement another $143bn investment programme starting in 2025. The goal is technological self-sufficiency, after the US has repeatedly restricted the access of China’s companies – for example, by imposing sanctions on Huawei. Chinese companies are currently far from the technological progress of the US or Taiwan. As things stand today, China will neither be able to meet the 70% semiconductor target through its own production by 2025, nor will it be able to match the technological developments of American and Taiwanese companies.
Even before the war, governments sought to renationalise production of strategically important goods because of the pandemic and disrupted supply chains. Russia’s war against Ukraine and China’s threats against Taiwan’s independence have accelerated this process. Production capacities and trade relations are being adapted to the new geopolitical situation. This is because the availability of semiconductors and microchips has become a matter of national security, and technological progress in this field has become an imperative for superior weapons systems. Therefore, it is not only a matter of being at the forefront of this technological progress, but also of preventing others from having these capabilities. Countering industrial espionage becomes a vital interest. This has implications for economic relations beyond the defence equipment itself.
A coordinated design of cyberspace
In addition to building the capabilities, their use must be analysed and designed. Cyberspace must be surveyed, exploited and protected. For NATO, this means that members must coordinate their design of cyberspace to be able to act collectively and support each other. This coordination simultaneously increases vulnerability. This will involve clearer standard operating procedures in the future, with the leading power, the United States, imposing its cyber culture as the benchmark. China does not have this challenge due to a lack of allies but will pass this on to interested governments via surveillance techniques.
For the two world powers, this defines a new space of capabilities that combines economic and military agency and produces conflicting cultures. The cooperative use of this space has failed so far, and the upcoming conflicts do not suggest a different development. A state with the ambitions of a world power cannot fall behind here. However, technological progress and production capabilities are not something that can be conquered militarily.