The Web is a weapon on the Chechnya front

By Paul Goble, Asia Times, 14 October 1999

Russians and Chechens are fighting not only on the physical battlefield in the North Caucasus. They have taken their fight to the virtual world of the Internet, with each side trying to seize the advantage there as well.

Last week, Moscow officials denied that Russian forces had attacked a bus carrying Chechen fugitives and killed many of them. But before that report could be aired on central Russian television, the Chechens used their Internet website to post photographs of the incident.

Not only did this call into question Russian claims about the way in which Moscow is conducting the current campaign, but it forced Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to focus ever more closely on the role of the Internet in deciding the outcome of conflicts.

Speaking to journalists last week, Putin openly acknowledged that Moscow was playing catch-up on this battlefield: “We surrendered this terrain some time ago,” he said, “but now we are entering the game again.”

The prime minister's remarks came on the heels of reports that Russia's evolving national security concept now calls for tightened control over the media during crisis situations. Indeed, the Russian government's own newspaper noted rather critically that “the introduction of centralized military censorship regarding the war in the North Caucasus is the only new idea” in the much vaunted national security doctrine.

But if battlefield censorship is nothing new—most governments have sought to impose it in most wars—then the war in the virtual world of the Internet is a recent development. And because of that, the attackers still have significant advantages over the defenders, even though that pattern may be reversed.

Since declaring their independence from the Soviet Union in November 1991, the Chechens have pioneered the use of the website as a weapon to try to break the information blockade that the Russian authorities have attempted to impose over the conflict.

In recent weeks, the Russian government has responded on a number of fronts. It has tried to close down the most important of the Chechen websites——and even sought help from Western governments to that end.

But Moscow has not limited itself to official moves against the Chechen efforts in cyberspace. The Russian authorities or their supporters have routinely hacked into Chechen sites, destroying or distorting the materials and information they contain.

And taking a leaf from the Chechens' book, the Russian government's news agencies have expanded their activities on the Web, not only increasing the number of sites they operate but tailoring them to deliver specific messages to specific audiences.

Control of information has always been a key element in military strategy and has often determined the outcomes of military campaigns. For most of human history, commanders on the scene and their political superiors were in a position to determine what was reported and what was not. But the rise of mass circulation newspapers in Europe during the last century and even more the appearance of radio and television in this one has limited the ability of both generals and politicians to control the situation. Now the Internet has reduced their ability to do so still further.

If Moscow eliminates one Chechen site, another is likely to replace it within hours, if not minutes. If those supporting the Russian side hack into a Chechen site, the Chechens are likely to respond by hacking into a Russian one. Indeed, there are suspicions that the Chechens or their backers may have been behind the defacing of Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov's site two weeks ago precisely because of his statements against Chechnya and his efforts to expel Chechens from the Russian capital.

The Internet and the World Wide Web have thus become yet another field of battle in modern war, one in which neither side has yet been able to declare any final victory. But this new, virtual, and all too real battlefield appears likely to be one in which those who seek to control the free flow of news are likely to suffer more defeats than those who sponsor it. And the victories of the latter in cyberspace may ultimately translate into other victories as well.