The phrase “Cyber War” has been discussed for years and debates over whether cyberattacks are “acts of war” is not new. But in 2022 and 2023, there is no question that we are seeing a cyber-war. The war between Russia and Ukraine — caused by illegal aggression by the Russian government — is the first time we saw two countries waging a physical war while also engaging in open cyber conflict.
The Russian government is deploying illegitimate cyberattacks as part of their war plans — directed at Ukrainian critical infrastructure and other command-and-control targets, as well as via social engineering means to undermine Ukrainian citizenry support for their government. However, Russia’s use of cyber offense operations has had limited success thus far.
Tactics and defenses evolve
The Russian government initially lagged in integrating its cyber operations into its overall warfighting campaign on the offensive side, but that has since changed. In its study of Russian activity, Microsoft has found an increase in the use of ransomware as part of operations to sow confusion, expansion in techniques to access network targets by Russian actors and integration amongst hacktivists (not affiliated allies) into campaigns. These emerging strategies have not necessarily changed the overall success of the Russian cyber operations — which remains middling — but suggest an enduring approach.
On the defensive side, the support from the global community to Ukranian cyber defenders, through efforts like The Cyber Defense Assistance Collaborative for Ukraine, has been good to see and shows the nature of force multiplication for cyber defense. As opposed to the provision of weapon systems, cyber support is less costly and predominantly occurs absent a policy debate. It also enables non-governmental security professionals to support the Ukranian government directly.
Government and private sector collaboration
Cyber information sharing and defense assistance partnerships through NATO and other multilateral mechanisms have seen substantial growth throughout the conflict. One lesson learned from Ukraine is that mutual defense is possible in cyberspace. The Aspen Institute highlights some areas where this has occurred, including vulnerability management, mitigation of distributed denial of service attacks and incident response services.
We have also seen how the private sector and hacktivists can be seconded into live defense operations to support governments during the conflict. This has primarily been done voluntarily with global firms, but there is room for more formal mapping in the future. For example, the Ukrainian government is trying to develop a law and supporting legal framework for the ad hoc “IT Army” to be part of its armed forces. This is a fascinating precedent to watch.
Impact on global enterprises
The impact of the conflict expands beyond governments to private sector enterprises. Although the war has not fundamentally shifted enterprise cybersecurity, it has once again reminded corporate leaders about the importance of contingency planning and staying vigilant. In addition, the reality that the world is becoming a riskier place and cyberattacks may be directed at industry for geo-political reasons deepens the importance of industry collaboration with government and embracing the idea of cyber resilience.
The Russian conflict demonstrates that enterprise security needs to account for information operations and have physical and cyber security elements. The term hybrid threat has been in use for a while, and Russia’s cyberattacks on Ukraine are clearly part of a hybrid campaign; this means that enterprise security needs to account for “hybrid defense.”
Cyber threats in future conflicts
Cyber operations are a novel warfighting technique to achieve offensive aims that have long traditions in warfare. Cyber operations will be used for intelligence collection by accessing sensitive information. Meanwhile, cyberattacks will be used to attempt to degrade the command and control of enemy forces and attack supply lines and key infrastructure availability. And they will be used to advance propaganda campaigns and to create confusion among populations to add a political front to kinetic warfare. The Russian government has leveraged all these tactics with limited success in its unlawful actions in Ukraine. But one can expect the Russians to learn from this as well as other countries with offensive cyber responsibilities.
We can expect a deeper study on how Ukrainian cyber defenses and support from allies and non-governmental organizations stymied Russian cyber weaponry. Cyber “battlefield” tactics will evolve based on lessons learned — lessons that could become particularly important if tensions continue to rise around China’s positioning against Taiwan. Therefore, this is an urgent issue for the U.S. and its allies and their national security communities.