Russia-Ukraine war and absence of cyber attacks | By Wg Cdr Jamail Abdul Nasir (R)


Russia-Ukraine war and absence of cyber attacks

SINCE launching a full-scale offensive on 24 February 2022, the Russian Federation has heavily relied upon its conventional military force to win this war.

Preliminary reviews available on open sources suggest that the Russian campaign is planned around application of conventional forces and no significant cyber-attack is carried out by the Federation.

The most expected modern conflict having sophisticated cyber operations between two modern nation states is yet to come to fore.

Russia is one of the most acclaimed cyber powers. In 2014, the Russian Federation launched a campaign to annex Crimea.

The campaign was planned in a way that it perplexed the adversary to respond proportionately.

The campaign was based on all available instruments of power including economic coercion, cyber-attacks and fomenting rebellion besides ground offensive.

Before launching a ground offensive the Russian Federation launched cyber-attacks against computer networks of Ukraine. Banking system of Ukraine was crippled and different official websites were defaced.

Moreover different reports suggest that Russian footprints were also observed during 2016 US elections. All these events suggest that country has capability to launch cyber-attacks.

Russia’s most significant cyber success so far in the current conflict is the disruption of the ViasatInc’s KA-SAT satellite.

This created significant damage that spread beyond Ukraine but ultimately did not provide military advantage to Russia.

The attack may have been intended to be part of a larger, coordinated cyber-attack that proved unsuccessful, or the Russians may not have expected the rapid restoration of service that was provided with outside assistance.

The effectiveness of a cyber-attack against Viasat is how much it was useful to achieve the desired military outcome, in this case, the occupation of Ukraine and the elimination of its elected government.

By this metric, the Viasat attack was not a success. Now question arises why Russia is unable to launch an effective cyber-attack to undermine its adversary’s cyber infrastructure to gain significant advantage by applying conventional and cyber capabilities

There are a number of hypotheses put forward by different analysts. One of the opinions is that President Putin envisaged a swift end without dragging out the conflict.

Therefore, Russian military leadership extensively applied conventional hard power to get effects which are otherwise not possible by merely applying cyber attacks.

Hence the Kremlin used hard power to take out targets such as electricity grids instead of launching cyber weapons for soft killsMany experts are of the opinion that allied countries of Ukraine had already placed counter defensive cyber measures before the start of hostilities to neutralize effects of Russian cyber-attacks.

Before the breakout of war, Russian intelligence agency GRU launched a number of cyber-attacks against the banking system and defence websites of Ukraine, but these attacks were blunted effectively.

However, numbers of experts are also warning against potential Russian cyber-attack. They are of the opinion that protracted war will compel Russian leadership to alter their plans.

Subsequently Russian leadership will resort to adding cyber dimension in their plans. These cyber operations would certainly have spillover effects for allies of Ukraine as well. Importance of cyberspace-based operations has been highlighted for a long time.

John Aquila, in his seminal work Cyber War is Coming, while discussing importance of situational awareness and ramifications of information revolution, argued that cyberspace will be pivotal in future conflicts where autonomous computers of adversaries will fight to attain strategic gains.

Richard Clark, a former US government official further highlighted the idea of cyber war in his book. He has discussed different scenarios associated with Cybergeddon.

He cited instances of cyber operations such as Israeli attack against Syrian clandestine nuclear facility in 2007.

In this attack software of Syrian Radar system was altered by cyber elements and subsequently fighter aircraft of Israeli Air Force were able to carry out their mission without any challenge.

In 2012, Leon E.Panetta, then defence secretary of the US warned that the United States was facing Cyber Pearl Harbor.

However, analysts such as Stephen Waltz and John Rid suggested that a full-scale cyber war is not possible.

They are of the view that the concept of cyber war is overblown. These analysts pointed out that cyber-attacks including cyber espionage, denial of service attacks are possible with critical effects.

Militaries around the world tend to adapt technologies to keep primacy over their adversaries.

According to Thucydides, the world is anarchic and nation states try to maximize their gains.

The Cyberspace is an enabling environment for the natural domain of land, air, sea and outer space.

Advances in cyberspace have accentuated the Revolution in military affairs. Therefore, the importance of cyber infrastructure is of paramount importance to attain strategic gains.

A military graded cyber weapon which was surfaced in 2010 is attributed to damaging Iranian nuclear facility.

However, such sophisticated artifacts involve a lot of money and a team of experts. Since then no other malware has been detected with kinetic effects.

Emerging disruptive technologies (EDTs) such as Artificial Intelligence, machine learning, pilotless aircraft etc., are product of advances in cyberspace.

EDTs are central to national security formulation of different nation states and potential challenges of strategic stability are also associated with EDTs.

Although preliminary outcome of Russia-Ukraine war suggests absence of cyber operations, nevertheless, there are certain lessons which can be inferred from this war.

The foremost important is that a cyber-attack alone cannot create effects to compel adversary.

However, while applied prudently in tandem with conventional military power, the cyber operations act as force multipliers.

Cyber artifacts are also useful for information operations to subdue adversary populace. Secondly, nation states learn from their failures.

Ukraine learned lessons from previous conflict in 2014 and strengthened their cyber defence, thus proving that offence is always not successful in cyberspace as it is perceived.

The nature of war is inherently chequered and often filled with uncertainties. Historically, technological advances usually affect the outcome of a battle. However, it is the leadership that influences the results of a war.

History tells us numerous instances where armies led by superior leadership defeated numerically advanced adversaries by wisely employing instruments of power and demonstrating great leadership qualities.

—The writer is contributing columnist, based in Islamabad.


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