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2019, №4, "Security Index" Series

"Security Index" Series image
Issue: №4

“No Holds Barred” and the New Vulnerability: Are We in for a Re-Run of the Cuban Missile Crisis in Cyberspace?

 Vladimir A. Orlov

The paper "'No Holds Barred' and the New Vulnerability” addresses the question whether the international community has to survive a cyber equivalent of the Cuban Missile Crisis to realize the importance of achieving some kind of agreement on cyber issues, and on the broader agenda of international information security.

Given the recent US Cyber Strategy that emphasizes offensive rather than purely defensive operations against Chinese and Russian military and cyber infrastructure, inaction is no option for Russia. Though there is a considerable degree of scepticism about the possibility of drafting an international convention on non- proliferation of cyber-weapons amid deteriorating security situation, yet a first step must be made, and it does not have to be legally binding or comprehensive.

The article is written by Professor at Moscow State University of International Relations (MGIMO); Founder and Director of PIR Center Dr. Vladimir A. Orlov


Key findings

  • It took the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, and the sudden appearance of Soviet nuclear weapons and missiles in Cuba, for the US leadership to realize that America’s nuclear invulnerability was gone, never to return. It took the Cuban Missile Crisis for everyone to understand that the future of our nations and of the entire planet could not be risked in a game of nuclear brinkmanship. Joint Soviet-US efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, combined with a bilateral system of nuclear deterrence and arms control architecture, have kept us from sliding towards an abyss.
  • The fear of cyberweapons is not on the same level as the fear of nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, it is also great, and it continues to grow because there’s no way of telling where the next blow may come from. This feeling of new vulnerability is akin to the feeling during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The realization that a potential adversary (a non-state actor or, more likely, a hostile state) may use the invisible IT networks to strike at our nuclear weapons control systems, our personal email boxes, our vote-counting systems, and our critical infrastructure facilities, leaves some paralyzed, others paranoid, and still others determined to prepare a symmetric or asymmetric response to any such attack. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth – even if the eyes and teeth in question exist only in virtual reality. After all, the line between the virtual and the real is becoming so blurred that we may one day find ourselves, to our horror, eyeless and toothless.
  • The world is sliding to another major crisis like the one in 1962. The cyber war is already raging. There are no rules of engagement in that war. The uncertainty is high. The spiral of tension is getting out of control. The cyber arms race is gaining momentum. And there are no guarantees that the next crisis will be controllable, or that it will result in a catharsis as far as international information security regulation is concerned.
  • Bilateral agreements between key international infospace actors could become an important interim step towards a comprehensive solution. But the spiraling crisis in international arms control makes any such bilateral, legally binding agreements on cyber weapons patently unrealistic, at least for the time being. In other words, for the time being, there are no holds barred.

Read the paper on PIR Center website


About the Author

Dr. Vladimir A. Orlov is expert in international security and Russia’s foreign policy. Dr. Orlov founded PIR Center, a private think-tank dealing with global security and foreign policy, in 1994. In 2001- 2002, the U.N. Secretary-General appointed Dr. Orlov as a U.N. consultant on disarmament and nonproliferation education. Since 2014, Dr. Orlov is the Head of the Center for Global Trends and International Organizations at the Diplomatic Academy in Moscow. Dr. Orlov served as a member of the UN Secretary General’s Advisory Board on Disarmament Matters (2015-2019). Since 2017, Dr. Orlov is MGIMO Professor (at Department of Applied Analysis of International Affairs). On October 7, 2019, he was appointed Director of PIR Center by the Center’s Executive Board at its annual session.


"Security Index" Occasional Paper Series presents reports, analytical articles, comments and interviews that reflect the positions of Russian and foreign experts on the current challenges of global security and Russian policy in this sphere. The series aims at providing clear analysis of global security problems and suggesting practical solutions.

"Security Index" Occasional Paper Series continues the "Security Index" journal published by PIR Center in 1994 – 2016. Authors and editors will be glad to receive comments, questions and suggestions on our e-mail address [email protected]