The Cyber Dimension in the Russia-Ukraine War

Maria Makurat

The crisis between Ukraine and Russia has been showing us actively how a hybrid war is taking place in Europe. Since Thursday, the 24th of February 2022, we have been hearing daily reports of the invasion as well as an increased activity in the cyber domain. Government officials as well as private actors are increasingly engaging in cyberspace. Anonymous, the international hacker group, has launched multiple cyberattacks on the Kremlin’s official websites and state media in an effort to disrupt Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and raise awareness of its implications among the Russian public.

Both for Russia and the West a problem in terms of information flows has been increasingly taking place. Ukraine has suggested cutting off Russia from the global internet altogether but the ICANN has stated that such a measure would not be tenable as it would go beyond the organisation’s mission. However, Russia has been blocking Facebook and Twitter as a means to stop the spread of “fake reports on the war”. With recent activities we may very well witness a power shift as has been proposed by scholars like  Joseph Nye. Such a process can be precipitated by the recent events surrounding the hacker group Anonymous. On the same day that Russia invaded Ukraine, Anonymous has openly declared to be now “officially  in cyber war against the Russian government.” If a group such as Anonymous takes action against Russia by launching cyberattacks, then we could see a shift of how private actors (one must assume this since we do not know the identities of the group) can have an influence in such a hybrid war as well. This can prove to be either an advantage since they can limit Russia’s room of manoeuvre or it could complicate relations even further since the long-term impacts of such cyberattacks remain unknown.

Ever since Anonymous tweeted their war declaration, there has been a strong reaction on social media as well in news reports. The tweet alone received over 300.2k likes, 8000 comments and was retweeted 60k times. On 27th of February they claimed to have taken down the Russian government site with internet users confirming that they can indeed not access the site. So far it seems that Anonymous has had an impact to the extent the group has raised awareness of the war among that Russian public, who lacks access to reliable sources of information.

As stated before, this hybrid war is affecting the civilian sector as well. Since the crisis, Nancy Faeser stated that “Germany needs to reckon with a higher number of cyberattacks against Germany, having their origin in Russia, since they are also a form of warfare.” It seems to be the case that critical infrastructure will  be the main target of such attacks, but up until now it seems they have been mostly having a psychological impact in terms of the danger of spreading misinformation.

The main concern is that cyberattacks could for example disrupt critical infrastructure in terms of energy supplies and railroads. Germany should continue investing in defence and be prepared for such attacks by, for instance, hiring more cyber experts for private companies. In the past it has been proven that cyber-attacks were able to cause physical damage by targeting hospitals in Germany, causing disturbances as medical personnel were left without access to vital information for operations. This means that even though for now the critical infrastructure has remained intact, one should be mindful of future risks.

A strong communication between official state actors and the civilian sector remains essential in order to continuously build a solid cyber defence. News companies such as the BBC have been attempting to filter false images that are being spread ever since the invasion. The question remains, however, of what the long-term effects will be if Russia is indeed almost completely cut off from major social media and news sites.

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