The recent crisis in Ukraine has brought to light some very uncomfortable truths. One is that warfare which to some was considered a relic of the past is still very much with us. Two; cyberwarfare is the new frontier in international conflicts.
Legendary Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu says;” If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” Information is key to winning all wars. In fact, it is the most vital tool in warfare, on land or at sea. This is why governments in the world wars invested a lot of time and manpower trying to intercept and decode messages.
Today, however, information is no longer passed on scrolls or sent through telegraphs. It’s all online. Meaning, that the only way to get this information is through hacking the enemy’s network; we call it cyberwarfare. And it has become the new frontier of international warfare.
The international warfare scene is rapidly changing, soldiers on the ground are fast being replaced by hackers behind a computer screen trying to get into the enemy’s network. Moreover, with the rise of automation in warfare in the form of drones and robots, cyberwarfare is becoming ever more apparent in modern international conflicts.
It is however important to note that like with brick-and-mortar weapons, cyberwarfare capabilities are not evenly distributed across the landscape. Much like missiles, nuclear arsenal or just bland military personnel, superpowers have the largest capabilities in cyberwarfare. Nations such as Russia, the US and China have amassed a lot of resources to both protect and attack each other in order to get ahead.
That said there are other smaller more militarized nations such as Iran and N. Korea which are also massively engaged in cyberwarfare. While weapons such as missiles and nukes require massive resources to build, talent is more equitably distributed across the globe. With little training, even small nations can be formidable forces in cyberwarfare.
Superpowers do still stay ahead in cyberwarfare and have used their cyber capabilities to advance their ‘real-world’ goals. The ongoing conflict in Ukraine is a good example of just how a superpower is using cyberwarfare in the ‘real’ war.
Cyberwarfare in the Ukraine Crisis
As stated earlier, Russia has long been engaged in cyberwarfare. It has deployed sophisticated cyberattacks in its invasions of Georgia in 2008 and Crimea in 2014. Ukraine, especially, has been subjected to a barrage of attacks. In 2015 and 2016 for instance, Russia attributed strikes disabled Ukraine’s power for hours. Lauren Zabierek, a specialist in cybersecurity in international conflict at the Harvard Kennedy School in Cambridge, Massachusetts says that Ukraine has become a ‘training ground” for Russian cyber operations.
Russia has the capability to use cyberwarfare to disrupt enemy communications, organizations and supplies, leading many to expect that it would deploy such tactics in this war, says Trey Herr, a cybersecurity-policy researcher at the Atlantic Council, a think-tank in Washington DC.
In contrast to Trey and a lot of expert opinions, Russia has not increased its cyberwarfare efforts in the current Ukraine crisis. The activity has been pretty low level.
There were cyberattacks even before Russia officially launched an offensive against Ukraine. On 24th February a type of malware called a wiper was detected circulating on Ukrainian government computing systems, corrupting vita data.
Moreover, earlier that week there was also a massive distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack that was widely attributed to Russia. The attack had flooded Ukrainian bank websites with traffic making them inaccessible.
Despite the gravity of these attacks, they are quite low-level compared to what Russia is really capable of. The question, therefore, is why Russia hasn’t used cyberwarfare as expected?
Herr says that it may be that “the decision to invade Ukraine was held at the highest level and didn’t trickle down the chain of command until it became too late to deploy significant cyberattacks, which can take months to organize.”
Another reason might also be Russia’s desire to preserve Ukraine’s infrastructure, rather than destroy and having to rebuild them.
Russia might also be holding back to avoid spillover effects beyond Ukraine as this could prompt a response from the West. Cyberattacks can easily spread. One instance in 2017 for instance saw a Russian-linked malware NotPetya that targeted financial software used by businesses in Ukraine spread worldwide. It destroyed access to almost all records at companies such as the Danish shipping giant Maersk and caused an estimated $10 billion in damages globally.
Could the cyberwarfare however escalate?
Zhanna Malekos Smith, a systems engineer at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think-tank in Washington DC thinks so. If the ground war stalls and financial sanctions bite, Russia could increase cyberattacks, she says. It could ramp up its assault on Ukraine and target Western nations to inflict on them the same kind of chaos wrought by sanctions, for example by targeting companies and financial markets, she says.
This is however unlikely to happen. As the conflict continues there is less need for cyberattacks on both sides. The war right now is very physical with cyberwarfare used only for sabotage or interrupting communication and even transport as in the case of a group who hacked a Belarusian train that was transporting Russian weapons to Ukraine.
Non-state actors may however escalate the situation as each side tries to get an edge for the side they support. A Russian hacker group called Conti said it would retaliate against cyberthreats on the Russian government. Meanwhile, the international hacker collective Anonymous and an ‘IT army’ of civilians are pursuing Russian targets.
The potential for escalation still however remains as both sides possess pretty damaging weapons capable of taking out whole nations’ power, financial, communication and even defensive systems. The real danger however lies in the spillover effects on nations not involved in the war. Small nations will thus have to do their best to ramp up their cyber-defences to avoid such catastrophes.