The build-up of Russian forces throughout Belarus’ 665 mile border with Ukraine is a physical manifestation of Russia’s intense interest in the region. Russia annexed crimea in 2014, and now Russian President Valdimir Putin seems intent on bringing Ukraine under Russian influence and denying it a close relationship with the West.
But even as Russia engages in risky politics from the snow-covered fields of Belarus to the meeting rooms of Geneva, Moscow is already at war with Kiev – cyberwar. Russia has been waging this fight since at least 2014.
In cyberspace, Russia has interfered in ukrainian elections, pointed to his electrical network, disfigured their government websites and disseminate disinformation. Strategically, Russian cyber operations are designed to undermine the Ukrainian government and private sector organizations. Tactically, the operations aim to influence, scare and subjugate the population. They are too omens of invasion.
As a Cybersecurity and public policy researcherI think Russian cyber operations are likely to continue. These operations are likely to deepen destabilize the political environment in Ukraine – that is, its government, its institutions and the people and organizations that depend on them.
National power in cyberspace
To date, Russia has been aggressive in its attempts to undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty. russian propaganda has painted a war with the Ukraine as a war of liberation. Many false narratives paint Ukrainians as submissive and eager for reunification. Russia’s intention is to sow confusion, shape the public perception of the conflict and influence the ethnic russian population within Ukraine.
Russia has cleverly used cyber operations to project national power, particularly through its GRU military intelligence service. The phrase “instruments of national power” defines power as diplomatic, informational, military, and economic – all are mechanisms for influencing other countries or international organizations. Cyberspace is unique as war domain because cyber operations can be used in the service of all four instruments of national power.
Diplomatically, Russia has tried to shape international norms in cyberspace by influencing discussions about cyberspace norms and behaviors. In 2018, Russia introduced a resolution to the United Nations create a working group with like-minded states to review and reinterpret the UN rule for cyberspace, emphasizing that a state’s sovereignty should extend to cyberspace. Some analysts argue that Russia’s real goal is legitimize their internet surveillance state tactics under the guise of state sovereignty.
Economically, the Russian “No Petya” attack gridlocked international ports, gridlocked corporations, disrupted supply chains, and effectively gridlocking the global economy, all with a single piece of code.
In the information environment, Russia is especially adept at influence and manipulate information according to its strategic interests. For example, Russian efforts against the UK have focused on its relationship with NATO by using bots to spread false stories about British troops in Estonia during a NATO military exercise in 2017.
In particular, Russia has a pattern of combining information with military operations as tools of national power. During previous military conflicts in eastern ukraine, the Russian military used cyber capabilities to jam Ukraine’s satellite, cellular, and radio communications.
General, Russia sees the war as a continuum which is ongoing with varying intensity on multiple fronts. Simply put, for Russia, the war never stops and cyberspace is a key domain of its ongoing conflict with Ukraine and the West.
Probing the US, hitting the Ukraine
Russia has directed its cyber operations at other nations, including the US and Western European countries. Russia has targeted US critical infrastructure Y supply chainsand carried out disinformation campaigns. US officials are still investigating the extent of the recent solar winds cyberattack, for example, but have determined that the attack compromised federal agencies, courts, numerous private companies, and state and local governments. Russian activities are aimed at undermining the internal and national security of the United States, democratic institutions and even public health efforts.
More recently, Microsoft detected data wipe malware in the computer systems of the Ukrainian government. Ukraine publicly named Moscow as the perpetrator and attributed software designed to destroy data to Russian hackers. The presence of the malware marks an escalation of Russia’s current behavior towards Ukraine in cyberspace. The malware, if activated, would have destroyed Ukrainian government records disrupted online services and prevented the government from communicating with its citizens.
The ongoing aggression against Ukraine continues russian pattern of waging cyber warfare while publicly threatening and preparing for a military invasion. In many ways, for Ukrainians, the prospect of war and the anticipation of an invasion have become normalized.
Website defacement and data loss are not the only concerns for Ukraine, as Russia continues to amass troops and equipment along its borders. In the winter of 2015-2016, Russia demonstrated its ability to hack Ukraine’s power grid in a first-of-its-kind attack that cut power to thousands of Ukrainians. Temperatures in Kyiv in the winter they hover around freezing during the day and get dangerously cold at night. Any loss of power could be deadly.
Similarly, cyberattacks could disrupt Ukraine’s economy and communications infrastructure. An attack on the financial sector could prevent Ukrainians from withdrawing money or accessing their bank accounts. An attack on communications infrastructure could cripple the Ukrainian military and limit the country’s ability to defend itself. Civilians would also lose their means of communication and with it the ability to organize evacuations and coordinate resistance.
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Ultimately, Russia is likely to continue to use cyber sabotage against Ukraine. Russian cyber operations over the past eight years contain three lessons to support this. First, cyberattacks that have costly physical effects, such as knocking out the power grid, are destabilizing and can be used to erode the will of the Ukrainian people and counter their inclination toward economic, military, and political alliances with Europe and NATO. Second, cyber attacks that have a physical effect showcase Russian cyber capabilities and prove their superiority over Ukrainian defenses. And third, Russia has done it before.