What Do We Know About Cyber Escalation? Observations from Simulations and Surveys

Summary of Study

Bottom Line: Cyber operations have allowed great powers to engage with enemies without escalating conflict, and have often worked to stabilize situations.

Great power competition "often involves the risk of escalation." Most powers -- including countries like Iran -- have nuclear arsenals, which makes escalation dangerous and increases the need for de-escalating strategies. Crisis studies since the Cold War have held that most countries will respond in-kind to a threat from an enemy nation. In other words, escalation breeds more escalation.

The emergence of new technologies can change "how decision makers weigh the cost and benefits of various foreign policy preferences." Experts are currently trying to determine how cyber operations will change the dynamic of international engagement, if at all.

Some think cyber operations will make things worse, since "in cyberspace, states are likely to confuse intelligence collection with more dangerous, offensive intrusions in their networks." Meanwhile, others think that cyber operations can actually help states manage crises and serve as tools for de-escalation.

To gauge public attitudes on cyber operations in great power competition, the Atlantic Council conducted a simulation. A thousand participants from the United States, Russia and Israel were given a scenario in which two nuclear states were engaged in a territorial dispute. Respondents were asked whether the "Green state" should de-escalate, escalate, or respond proportionally to a crisis with the "Purple state."

They found that U.S. respondents generally opted for a proportional response, while Russian respondents "escalated more than expected." Across the board, the Russians tended to choose one of the "extreme" positions, though the majority of respondents wanted to de-escalate the crisis. With the exception of Russia, "the presence of cyber triggering events" did not affect preferences across countries.

Notably, the survey suggested that "cyber operations appear less as instruments of escalation and more as signaling mechanisms that provide crisis offramps and help states shape adversary behavior short of armed conflict."

Other notable results: Russian respondents opted for diplomatic talks more than expected, while Israelis responded as such less than expected. Russian respondents were far more interested in working with social media companies to remove propaganda than U.S. respondents, despite "concerns over the 2016 US election."

Across scenarios, Russian respondents were uninterested in using backchannels during a crisis, while "Israeli respondents showed a preference, regardless of treatment, to use black and gray propaganda to discredit their rival more than expected." In contrast to U.S. respondents, who opted for military respondents when they lacked cyber options, Israeli respondents opted for military responses "more than expected when cyber options were available."

All told, the survey reveals that "cyber operations are not inherently escalatory," and suggest that policymakers should treat them accordingly. Conceptualizing an appropriate framework around cyber operations in great power competition is crucial in our connected age.

Read the full report here.

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Atlantic Council