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Cyber Conflict in Ukraine: Reframing Moscow’s Objectives

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To a certain extent, cyber war has already started. When the U.S. Department of Defense officially embraced the Defend Forward doctrine in 2018, it signaled that incursions in adversaries’ systems could entail more than just intelligence gathering.(1) Yet, the Russian Federation’s use of cyber means in Ukraine suggests otherwise. Despite predictions of a cyber “shock and awe, causing Ukraine's defenses or will to fight to collapse,”(2) cyberattacks seem to have so far only provided an informational strategic advantage—rather than the anticipated destructive cybergeddon. Following an initial salvo of pre-positioned data-wiping malware as tanks rolled into Ukraine, sophisticated operations have progressively faded away(3) — questioning even the relevance of cyber war as a concept and bringing about important policy implications. So why have Russian cyber dogs mostly “failed to bark”(4)?

A first set of conditioning factors arise from the nature of offensive cyber operations during wartime. Unlike kinetic capabilities, cyber weapons are vulnerability-dependent: they require the attacker to identify and weaponize a weak link in the target’s system. As Ukraine bolstered the resilience of its digital infrastructure through investments and international support, developing offensive exploits became an increasingly challenging, resource-, and time-consuming process. Not only does building creative intrusion vectors require sufficient infrastructure, funding, and skilled manpower(5): sustaining the war effort beyond an opening salvo demands regeneration capabilities and a larger initial set of highly sophisticated exploits.(6) Besides, the Kremlin’s self-reliance strategy is unlikely to solve its cyber unpreparedness: deprived of Western tech companies and their pool of R&D talents, Russia’s dependency on the Chinese market is likely to consolidate Beijing’s strategic superiority—with the opportunity to plant backdoors in the technology provided.

In addition to inadequate military capabilities and resource shortages, Russia’s cyber potential is arguably limited by the geography of its physical layer. Historically developed around a burgeoning network of autonomous systems (AS) after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian Internet (Runet) grew in a decentralized manner and in isolation from the global Internet.(7) On the one hand, the Russification of annexed territories’ networks allows Moscow to control narratives and enforce censorship.(8) However, as digital operations grow increasingly civilianized, limited access to Western democracies’ social media curtails Russia’s grassroots offensive digital potential.(9) Being digitally cut off raises the technical barriers of entry to hostilities for populations and private civilian companies. Lastly, Russia’s bureaucratic structure and internal division and rivalry dynamics between its intelligence agencies—mainly the Armed Forces’ Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) and the Federal Security Service (FSB)(10)—seem better suited to meet subversive objectives than coordinated, synchronized ones.(11) Beyond these challenges, Russia’s experience in Ukraine suggests the strategic impact of cyber means diminishes as the war stretches—thus challenging the legitimacy of cyber warfare as a “fifth pillar” of conflict and the likeliness of an all-out, destructive cyber war. But has cyber war ever been part of the Kremlin’s strategic objectives?

Clearly, Russia’s performance has been measured against inadequate expectations. The first explanation lies in military thought and terminology: Russia’s military concepts almost rarely refer to cyber—instead focusing on information warfare.(12) Unlike the U.S.-influenced conception emphasizing the integrity, accessibility, and confidentiality of digital systems, Moscow’s approach encompasses both technical and psychological components and frames competition in the informational space as a constant struggle for the control of minds as much as of technical systems. For instance, distributed denial-of-service (DDoS)—flooding a network with superfluous requests to overload systems—and hack-and-leak operations— gaining access to sensitive data and then release it in the public domain—attempt to fragment Ukrainians’ trust in their government and increase its Allies’ war fatigue.(13) In short, the cyber war has begun—just not where and how Western analysts expected it.

Still, although crucial to shaping narratives during peacetime(14), Moscow’s emphasis on information competition suffers from three structural limitations in times of conflict. First, the Russian strategy might not meet the speed, intensity, and control required to articulate cyber operations with kinetic developments.(15)(16) Second, cyber operations are poor tools of coercion(17) and have so far little impact on warfighting(18)—falling short of tangible strategic value and influence on Ukrainian decision-making.(19) Third, attribution uncertainty and unverifiable signaling of capabilities complicate cyber deterrence. For Russia, self-attributing cyberattacks means exposing precious tactics, techniques, and procedures that could harm future covert operations. This explains why only hacktivist collectives conducting low-impact DDoS or defacement attacks—modifying the visual appearance of a webpage—have revendicated their activity on their Telegram channels. Ukraine faces a communication- capability trade-off, as backing up attribution claims would reveal the extent of their knowledge and its limits. In short, no belligerent has an interest in communicating, failing to influence Ukrainian decision-maker's strategic choices.

In their 1993 Cyberwar is Coming!, Arquilla and Ronfelt present cyber war as the 21st century’s blitzkrieg.(20) As artificial intelligence takes informational warfare into uncharted territory, Russia’s experience in Ukraine does not mean that cyber war will not take place.(21) Rather, its syndromes and effects are unlikely to mirror anything we have seen so far, forcing expectations to evolve accordingly.

Ulysse Richard is an International Security dual Master’s candidate at Sciences Po & Peking University. Currently working with the CyberPeace Institute’s Threat Intelligence team and as an Analyst for the Spykman Center, his research interests include the ethics of emerging technologies, cybersecurity, and China’s foreign policy.

 

(1) US. Dept. of Defense. 2018 Cyber Strategy. 2018.

(2) Courtney, William, and Peter A. Wilson. If Russia Invaded Ukraine. 8 December 2021.

(3) Cyber Attacks in Times of Conflict | CyberPeace Institute. https://cyberconflicts.cyberpeaceinstitute.org/. Accessed 9 July 2023.

(4) Vi?i?, Jelena, and Rupal N. Mehta. “Why Russian Cyber Dogs Have Mostly Failed to Bark.” War on the Rocks, 14 Mar. 2022.

(5) Valeriano, Brandon, and Ryan Maness. “The Fog of Cyberwar.” Foreign Affairs, 21 Nov. 2012.

(6) Bateman, Jon, et al. “What the Russian Invasion Reveals About the Future of Cyber Warfare.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 19 Dec. 2022.

(7) Raffray, Emma, and Geoffroy Millochau. “War in Ukraine: The Struggle for Computer Network Control and Its Impact on Civilians.” CyberPeace Institute, 16 Mar. 2023.

(8) Limonier, Kevin, et al. “Mapping the Routes of the Internet for Geopolitics: The Case of Eastern Ukraine.” First Monday, Apr. 2021. DOI.org (Crossref), https://doi.org/10.5210/fm.v26i5.11700.

(9) The civilianization of digital operations refers to the growing involvement of populations to support war efforts, such as reporting on military movements using smartphone apps. Private civilian companies also contribute to the resilience of their country’s digital infrastructure. See Ma?ák, Kubo. “Civilianization of Digital Operations: A Risky Trend.” Default, 5 Apr. 2023.

(10) Galeotti, Mark. “Putin’s Hydra: Inside Russia’s Intelligence Services.” ECFR, 11 May 2016, https://ecfr.eu/publication/putins_hydra_inside_russias_intelligence_services/.

(11) Wilde, Gavin. “Cyber Operations in Ukraine: Russia’s Unmet Expectations.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2 Dec. 2022.

(12) Russian Federation Armed Forces’ Information Space Activities Concept?: Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation. https://eng.mil.ru/en/science/publications/more.htm?id=10845074@cmsArticle.

(13) Karnitschnig, Matthew. “Ukraine Is Fighting Western War Fatigue, Minister Says.” Politico, 1 Feb. 2023,

(14) Paul, Christopher, and Miriam Matthews. The Russian “Firehose of Falsehood” Propaganda Model. RAND Corporation, 11 July 2016. www.rand.org, https://www.rand.org/pubs/perspectives/PE198.html.

(15) Maschmeyer, Lennart. “The Subversive Trilemma: Why Cyber Operations Fall Short of Expectations.” International Security, vol. 46, no. 2, Oct. 2021, pp. 51–90. DOI.org (Crossref), https://doi.org/10.1162/isec_a_00418.

(16) Bateman, Jon, et al. “What the Russian Invasion Reveals About the Future of Cyber Warfare.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 19 Dec. 2022.

(17) Borghard, Erica D., and Shawn W. Lonergan. “The Logic of Coercion in Cyberspace.” Security Studies, vol. 26, no. 3, July 2017, pp. 452–81, https://doi.org/10.1080/09636412.2017.1306396.

(18) Kostyuk, Nadiya, and Yuri M. Zhukov. “Invisible Digital Front: Can Cyber Attacks Shape Battlefield Events?” Journal of Conflict Resolution, vol. 63, no. 2, Feb. 2019, pp. 317–47. DOI.org (Crossref), https://doi.org/10.1177/0022002717737138.

(19) Mashmeyer, Lennart, and Nadiya Kostyuk. “There Is No Cyber ‘Shock and Awe’: Plausible Threats in the Ukrainian Conflict.” War on the Rocks, 8 Feb. 2022.

(20) Arquilla, John, and David Ronfeldt. Cyberwar Is Coming! RAND Corporation, 1 Jan. 1993. https://www.rand.org/pubs/reprints/RP223.html.

(21) Rid, Thomas. Cyber war will not take place. Oxford University Press, 2013.

 

 

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