Cyberwar: Lessons From Ukraine

Wars are conflicts where the use of particular weapons, strategy and tactics are laboratories which are capable of providing lessons that shape future conflicts. In particular, Artificial Intelligence (AI) is assuming critical war-fighting capabilities on the modern battlefield. The Internet of Things, Open Source Intelligence and Social Media are also taking an increasingly  significant part.

Before Russia’s invasion, European states, such as France and Germany, had failed to adapt to new geopolitical realities in the region and Russia’s actions would lead to a dramatic reappraisal of European security posture.

Another obvious type of inflection point in the story of war is when a new weapon is introduced that fundamentally changes or even ends the fighting, such as the atomic bomb’s debut in World War II. 

Artificial Intelligence

The conflict in Ukraine has seen various forms of AI deployed in a growing variety of ways, from using face recognition software to identify enemy soldiers and to deploying machine learning to make military and supply chains more effective.

AI has been harnessed to advance propaganda and information warfare: Russia’s invasion in Ukraine is the first war to see the use of deepfake videos, which blur the line between the real and machine generated. The use of machine intelligence in all its forms in war will grow as AI both advances in its own capability and takes on more roles and importance in our world beyond the realm of war.

Internet of Things

Even before the start of the conflict, Russian hackers attempted to degrade a variety of strategic  Ukrainian-networked systems from power grids to space communications. Using digital means to inflict a physical effect on a distant enemy is the future of warfare. The world is becoming more reliant upon the Internet-linked devices that now run the operations of every area of critical infrastructure and even operate within your home. 

Unfortunately, in the Internet of Things (IoT) there is a risk of recreating many of the same original problems that surrounded cyber security from the origin of the Internet - the attack surface is growing exponentially, adding more and more targets for hackers to attack. 

Yet security too often remains a secondary concern in IoT design and operations, due to unclear accountability and a general lack of requirements and regulation. The outcome is that too many vulnerabilities are just baked into the IoT systems that we increasingly rely on. This means digital attacks will increasingly have physical effects and this will especially be the case in wartime, where the normal limits of cyber deterrence fall by the wayside, and the incentives for causing harm are far different for militaries than cyber criminals’ incentives for profit.

OSINT

One major effect came from the sheer scale and importance of Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT). Ukrainians have turned their cell phones and social media accounts into a new kind of spy sensor and simultaneous broadcast network, collecting useful bits of information and distributing them widely for critical examination.

OSINT can, for example, be of critical value in challenging President Putin's claims that Russia was merely reacting to an emergency and not planning an invasion. In turn, Ukraine has used OSINT from literally millions of local civilians and hapless Russian soldiers’ posts, to track and target Russian military moves.

Indeed, the information has been so extensive and valuable, that the Ukrainian government even created its own special app, Diia, to manage the flow from outside OSINT volunteer spies and analysts. Diia allows Ukrainian citizens to use digital documents in their smartphones instead of physical ones for identification and sharing purposes.

Social Media

Ukraine’s leader has used social media effectively to counter the supposed Russian mastery of information warfare. Before the war, Volodymyr Zelenskyy was little known outside of the region. Inside Ukraine, polls found him and his party with just 23% support. Zelenskyy had little global influence and was the least unpopular of a set of deeply unpopular Ukrainian leaders, amid distrust of the government in general. These very same political dynamics may have tempted Putin to think just a slight push would topple the regime. Zelenskyy has made masterful use of the online space to get out his message while his nation was under attack. 

The use of social media has been a crucial victory for Ukraine is in reaching and influencing a worldwide audience: to gain support. 

The sympathy for Ukraine has reshaped the political context everywhere from the US to as far away as Japan, Australia and Germany. Russia’s invasion has also strengthened NATO’s deterrence posture and increased its forward presence in Eastern Europe.

This is altering both political priorities and what policies leaders thought their populations would ever be willing to support.  

CSIS:     UKRInform:   Raksha-Anirveda:      DefenseOne:      Chatham House Atlantic Council:  

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