When I happened to notice that the Amazon site for my new book was missing the most flattering reviews readers had left there, I suspected a hacker attack. The book criticizes Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose government is known to employ internet trolls to denounce the Kremlin's critics and sanction massive denial-of-service attacks against real and perceived opponents during turbulent times such as the current crisis over Ukraine's Black Sea peninsula Crimea.
The term “cyberwar” first drew public attention in 2007, when internet sites in the Baltic Sea country of Estonia came under a series of attacks. They coincided with a bitter war of words between the former Soviet republic and a Kremlin furious over the relocation of a statue of a Red Army soldier from the center of the Estonian capital, Tallinn. A flood of requests overwhelmed a number of Estonian sites. The country’s defense minister at the time later told me they were meant to “destabilize society and question the government’s capabilities to maintain law and order in cyberspace.”
Another wave took place the following year in another former Soviet republic that had rubbed Moscow the wrong way. During Russia’s invasion of Georgia in August of 2008, attacks against the presidential administration, various ministries, and private companies disrupted communications and disabled twenty sites for more than a week.
Although I have no way of verifying whether or not my suspicions about my book’s Amazon site are accurate, they were a very personal reminder that those kinds of actions do happen — and reinforcement for my disagreement with the belief many Americans hold that what’s happening in Ukraine isn’t our business.
As people in Crimea take part in a Moscow-orchestrated referendum on joining Russia on Sunday, Western governments are defying expectations by taking a hard line against the Kremlin by threatening serious sanctions. However, that position is at odds with a growing tide of Western commentary that’s questioning assumptions about Putin and urging caution.
Yes, Putin is a bad guy who's misbehaving again, the logic goes. But who are we to lecture him? Russia has historic ties to Crimea that must be considered before any judgment can be made. Moreover, taking action over Crimea isn't in our interests. We're not going to roll back an annexation that's essentially already taken place, so why risk a rise in energy prices and other possibly painful economic consequences by enacting sanctions against Russia?
The search for new angles on a topic dominating headlines may make the rise of that kind of opinion inevitable. Some of it has merit. Of course John Kerry’s criticism of Moscow’s launching an invasion based on false pretexts appears idiotic from a man who voted to support the war in Iraq, whose premise was no less fabricated. However, some of those on the left who argue that we must understand Putin better would never do so for Barack Obama.
There was similar revisionism in 2008, the last time Russia invaded an independent country. Back then, a Kremlin furious over Tbilisi’s drive to join NATO goaded Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili into attacking pro-Moscow separatists inside Georgia in order to launch a counterattack. Several months later, Saakashvili came under withering attacks on BBC, in the New York Times and elsewhere assigning him the bulk of the blame.
The doubt they raised about Putin’s motives helped ensure Western countries took no substantial measures to censure Moscow for its invasion. Now Putin’s doing it again while also taking his authoritarianism at home to a new level. The Kremlin is cutting off internet and television outlets for independent media as the military masses troops on Ukraine’s borders and officials warn that Moscow reserves the right to intervene in Ukraine to protect Russians there. Meanwhile, Russian goons are whipping up separatism in eastern Ukraine, fuelling protests that are turning violent.
More from GlobalPost: Crimea prepares for the world’s most predictable vote
The logic of Putin’s rule is to keep ratcheting up fear at home and abroad in order to boost his own power as king of the roost. If he succeeds in redrawing European borders using military force in Ukraine as he did in Georgia, surely Moldova or another former Soviet country with a sizeable Russian population will be next. And when it comes to the internet, there are no borders. Pro-Russia hackers can strike anywhere.
That’s why it’s in our direct interests to take tough measures to stop Putin’s attack on Ukraine. Our own self interest aside, failing to take action over Crimea would beg the question of what America stands for in the world. Does the fact that Ukraine was once part of the Russian empire mean Ukrainians today shouldn’t hope to determine their own future?
Western leaders appear not to think so. They're finally acting together to ensure Putin’s actions exact a cost — which may become increasingly less popular in the West in the coming weeks and months, but no less right for it.
Gregory Feifer is Europe editor for GlobalPost. His new book is Russians.