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What About Cyber-War? What We Have Seen and Not Seen in the Russo-Ukrainian War

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Image credit: Adam Scotti/PMO

POLICY PERSPECTIVE

by Abby MacDonald
CGAI Fellow
April 2022

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Table of Contents


Introduction

It has widely been assumed that the Western world saw the last of its hot conventional wars with the end of the Second World War, as the world grew increasingly integrated economically, making this type of conflict inefficient. The liberal international order assumed rationality would prevail and countries would choose the economic benefits of these relationships over conflict. Economics became a new tool to replace traditional military means of force if peaceful relations deteriorated; sanctions, preferential trade and exclusion from financial institutions all became methods of punishment and retaliation. With the rise of the internet, the world became further interconnected, but also more vulnerable to attack through cyber-space, as critical infrastructure, finance and access to information all have come to depend on online systems. Warfare came to be regarded differently, with cyber-warfare expected to be the future of conflict. Yet, Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, launching a full-on conventional war. Western countries rushed to apply economic pressure, applying sanctions, excluding Russia from the SWIFT system, payment systems and banks, cutting access to the country, banning travel and a host of other harsh conditions.

Meanwhile, the internet has been flooded with real-time information on the invasion. However, disinformation and censoring are rampant, with civilians, combatants, world leaders, governments and journalists competing to post the latest updates. Cyber-attacks are playing a role in the conflict, though have not been the sole or even most important aspect of the hostilities; furthermore, they are coming not just from state-sponsored organizations, but non-state hacker groups and even volunteer hackers on both sides. Private sector organizations were drawn into the conflict as some chose to suspend services to Russia or support cyber-resiliency in Ukraine. In recent years, Russia has employed many devastating cyber-attacks against Ukraine, including on the country’s electricity grid in 2015, with the virus NotPetya on the Ukrainian financial system which spread globally, and other Eastern European countries. Considering Russia’s extensive history of hacking and policy of information warfare, this raises the question: Why are we not seeing a cyber-war, and will we?

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What is Cyber-War?

Cyber-war is a fairly contested term, and not all believe that cyber-war actually exists.1 For the most part, nation states look to international law and the rules on use of force and self-defence regarding the legality of cyber-operations.2 The Tallinn Manual and Tallin Manual 2.0 both analyze extensively the legal implications of cyber-operations in the context of international law and nation states. The popular vision of cyber-war is one in which critical infrastructure, telecommunications, the internet and all connected systems are completely shut down, effectively crippling society. We have seen this to varying degrees in the aforementioned case of Russia’s attacks on countries in its neighbourhood, as well as on infrastructure in other countries such as the Colonial pipeline attack in the United States, but nothing to such a complete extent.

However, despite the increasing predictions of this sort of cyber-war – of which there is no broadly accepted definition – it has not made an appearance thus far. There could be many reasons for this, one of which of course is that we simply don’t know it’s happening; after all, it is often strategically useful in a cyber-attack to remain undetected for as long as possible. It could also be that this simply would not meet the strategic goals of the invasion. In this case, Russia has long considered Ukraine as key to its plans for many strategic reasons, including territory and warm water ports. Ironically, Western sanctions in the wake of the 2014 annexation made Ukraine even more important to Russia’s geoeconomic ambitions as part of a land route for energy exports.3 Based on its goals, this type of complete cyber-war seems unlikely to be useful. This is not to say that cyber has not been used in this conflict; however, these activities have been used in different ways, as a supporting activity of the war aiming to accomplish the two main goals that cyber-activities usually attempt to achieve: propaganda and disruption.4 Cyber-attacks cannot gain territory, but they can disrupt the other side’s operations, target infrastructure and civilians and affect public opinion during the process of gaining physical territory.5 These operations are simply better suited to spreading disinformation and confusion and attempting to cause distrust and chaos, bolstering the conventional forces. 

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What Cyber-Activities Have We Seen in This Conflict?

Propaganda and disinformation have been widely employed in this conflict, and the reach of these activities has been global. Social media has played a role in conflicts before, though this truly global scale is unprecedented, especially among youth. Young Russian Tik Tok influencers posted videos with a justification of the invasion – all apparently following the same script. Young Ukrainians also took to Tik Tok, as well as other platforms such as Instagram, to post their own videos of updates. While many sincerely try to ensure their information is as accurate as possible, this is not always easy – especially with just as many people deliberately spreading disinformation. Some examples include attempts to cause fear and panic; Russians found local Telegram chats and posted false warnings about upcoming bombings to scare citizens away. People created Discord servers for updating and commenting and livestreamed battles online in addition to news footage. Social media was not only used to spread information – whether it was true or not – but to boost morale and push narratives, and much of the information circulating on social media is in favour of Ukraine. Videos and photos of President Volodymyr Zelensky went viral, from his impassioned speeches about defending the country to the end to posing with his dogs. There were photos of Ukrainian couples getting married on the front lines and citizens crowding the streets wanting to get weapons and join the fight. In Russia as well, videos of Russians protesting the war and getting detained started to circulate, and Ukrainians posted videos of Russian soldiers surrendering or being captured.

Disruption and espionage have been used by both sides, with Russia hacking government ministries and defacing Ukrainian websites even before the invasion. The most substantial cyber-attack so far, which has not officially been attributed to Russia at this time, is the hack of Viasat, a satellite communications provider, which impacted other European countries as well as Ukraine. The American company is still working to bring users back online and recently stated that they are still actively defending the service from malicious activities. Russia has also actively blocked Western social media and created what is being called a “fake news” law to control the narrative at home. It’s also threatened steep fines for Wikipedia if it does not remove certain information about the war that it considers inaccurate. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s volunteer hackers and other hacking groups, including the group called Anonymous, have also made progress in disrupting Russian government websites and services. So far, however, there have been no largely debilitating cyber-attacks on infrastructure, with the extensive damage done coming from conventional attacks and weapons. 

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Will We See Cyber-War?

For the foreseeable future, cyber-activities will likely remain in the realm of propaganda and disruptions of communications and services. In this conflict, complete cyber-war does not appear to be strategically useful, though cyber-activities including disinformation will continue. Disinformation will remain a powerful tool, especially as digital propaganda techniques using artificial intelligence become increasingly sophisticated. The environment for cyber-operations and disinformation is increasingly complicated, which has been demonstrated in this conflict; the involvement of new actors, ranging from youth on social media to private companies both large and small, to any civilians engaging with online content, makes for an environment impossible to control and potentially creating a variety of new targets in conflict other than states.

Experts also warn that civilian infrastructure will increasingly be a target of cyber-operations. Sensitive infrastructure, including nuclear weapons, is a serious concern that is especially difficult to discuss considering its highly classified nature. While our interconnected systems are convenient, there is always a risk of compromise.

The risk of cyber-attacks in retaliation for sanctions remains high, but being the first country to launch a complete cyber-offensive would probably be costly in many ways, and some experts believe it could even lead to the cyber equivalent of mutually assured destruction. It seems unlikely in the current circumstances that cyber-war will come to the West, but it is vital to have cyber-defences on high alert to prepare for any possibility. Canada’s intelligence agencies are preparing for an increase in cyber-threats and warning Canadians to be vigilant in their online activities.

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How to be Strong, Secure and Engaged in Cyberspace

In 2017, the Department of National Defence (DND) released its Strong, Secure and Engaged defence policy, which envisions Canada’s armed forces as agile, able to adapt to a rapidly changing world and to make significant contributions both at home and abroad. In order to achieve this outcome, DND must guarantee that this policy includes cyber-space.

To be strong, Canada must reaffirm its commitments to security alliances including NATO and NORAD. To maintain a peaceful international system, staying secure means upholding its relationships and contributing its fair share. NATO recognizes cyber-space as a domain it must be able to defend as effectively as land, air or space, and is committed to cyber-space being peaceful and secure; Canada also believes that a peaceful and secure cyber-sphere is necessary to its security, economy and democratic values, and that collaborating with allies is necessary to achieve this. In order to realize its vision of security and resilience, innovation and leadership and collaboration in the National Cyber Security Strategy, contributing to NATO’s efforts, especially the Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence, is imperative. If Canada seeks to support NORAD modernization, particularly in detecting and deterring threats in all domains, including cyber, and promoting research, development and innovation, it will require significant investment and commitment.

To be secure, strong emphasis on digital literacy in schools and workplaces, and free independent journalism can help foster trust, establish reliable channels of information and spread awareness. Canada should use its advanced position in cyber-security and artificial intelligence to reinforce defensive strategies and detection abilities for sophisticated disinformation techniques. Finally, our digital infrastructure and communications are dependent on technology such as satellites in space, which is a dangerously contested and crowded environment with virtually no norms and outdated international law. Canada has historically been an important contributor to space technologies and was the third country in the world with its own satellite in space.6 Space has been identified as a strategic asset that is essential for security and sovereignty;7 Canada needs to work with its allies to establish better governance in space, building off the extensive work done to write a Manual on International Law Applicable to Military Uses of Outer Space (MILAMOS), led by McGill University, and the Woomera Manual, a similar project spearheaded by universities in Australia.

To be engaged, Canada recognizes the influence of non-state actors and civil society’s influence on international affairs. As non-state groups and civilians increasingly interact online in the context of conflict, the potential targeting of non-state groups and other actors is increasingly likely. This is also true of the private sector. It is important that Canada ensure organizations that it works with are well-equipped and knowledgeable about the cyber-risks they face and how to mitigate them. Governments need to move faster on regulating technology and co-ordinating with allies – the traditional legal process will not keep up with new technologies, and flexible frameworks and best practices must operate alongside existing international and domestic law to govern digital spaces.

Canada is connected with a vast range of international partners, with membership in forums and organizations for states, non-state actors and civil society alike, and is a leader in cyber, artificial intelligence and space research. Active steps must be taken to strengthen its abilities and encourage co-ordination among its allies, and Canada must be proactive in its response to these challenges.

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End Notes

1 Cameran Ashraf, “Defining Cyberwar: Towards a Definitional Framework,” Defense & Security Analysis, 2021, 37(3): 274–294, DOI: 10.1080/14751798.2021.1959141: 274.

2 Ibid., 275.

3 Pami Aalto and Tuomas Forsberg, “The Structuration of Russia’s Geo-economy under Economic Sanctions,” Asia Europe Journal, 2015, 14, 2: 221-37, doi:10.1007/s10308-015-0446-6: 226.

4 Nadiya Kostyuk and Yuri M. Zhukov, “Invisible Digital Front: Can Cyber Attacks Shape Battlefield Events?” Journal of Conflict Resolution, November 10, 2017, 63(2): 317–347, https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0022002717737138: 319–320.

5 Ibid., 321.

6 Government of Canada, “A New Space Strategy for Canada,” Department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada,  https://asc-csa.gc.ca/pdf/eng/publications/space-strategy-for-canada.pdf, 5.

7 Ibid., 9.

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About the Author

Abby MacDonald received her Master’s in International Affairs, where she specialized in security and defence policy, in 2021. Before that, she earned her B.A. in International Relations from Western University in 2019. Her research interests include cybersecurity policy, the impact of technology on conflict, artificial intelligence, and conflict economics. Abby has worked as a research assistant studying national economic security and geoeconomics, and has worked in information security policy and information management. 

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Canadian Global Affairs Institute

The Canadian Global Affairs Institute focuses on the entire range of Canada’s international relations in all its forms including (in partnership with the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy), trade investment and international capacity building. Successor to the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute (CDFAI, which was established in 2001), the Institute works to inform Canadians about the importance of having a respected and influential voice in those parts of the globe where Canada has significant interests due to trade and investment, origins of Canada’s population, geographic security (and especially security of North America in conjunction with the United States), social development, or the peace and freedom of allied nations. The Institute aims to demonstrate to Canadians the importance of comprehensive foreign, defence and trade policies which both express our values and represent our interests.

The Institute was created to bridge the gap between what Canadians need to know about Canadian international activities and what they do know. Historically Canadians have tended to look abroad out of a search for markets because Canada depends heavily on foreign trade. In the modern post-Cold War world, however, global security and stability have become the bedrocks of global commerce and the free movement of people, goods and ideas across international boundaries. Canada has striven to open the world since the 1930s and was a driving factor behind the adoption of the main structures which underpin globalization such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization and emerging free trade networks connecting dozens of international economies. The Canadian Global Affairs Institute recognizes Canada’s contribution to a globalized world and aims to inform Canadians about Canada’s role in that process and the connection between globalization and security.

In all its activities the Institute is a charitable, non-partisan, non-advocacy organization that provides a platform for a variety of viewpoints. It is supported financially by the contributions of individuals, foundations, and corporations. Conclusions or opinions expressed in Institute publications and programs are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Institute staff, fellows, directors, advisors or any individuals or organizations that provide financial support to, or collaborate with, the Institute.

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