Cyber capabilities display attractive features for nation-states’ covert influence activities in the grey zone between war and peace. They can be used to support objectives of information warfare in several ways: collecting intelligence, doxing, infecting devices and webpages to spread propaganda, social media bots, and Distributed Denial of Service attacks.
This paper focuses on cyber-attacks conducted by authoritarian states and their proxies in support of influence activities against liberal democracies. Russia’s practice confirms that cyber-attacks are attractive tools for authoritarian states to project national power and support other political influence activities. Cyber espionage seems to have strategic effects, whilst low-end cyber-attacks tend to produce tactical and operational effects; however, together with psychological operations they can have strategic effects on national security. Cyber-attacks can be used for the purpose of deterrence and coercion, but a better theoretical framework for cyberspace should be developed to explain their strategic impact. It is suggested that quantitative and qualitative methods, and operational and strategic level analysis be combined to provide for a better understanding of this fast-evolving domain and how the authoritarian states are exploiting it.