essay icon

What are the Cyber Implications of Russia’s War on Ukraine?

 By Sravya Kotamraju, Girl Security Fellow (age 16)

In recent decades, the fields of cybersecurity and international politics have become increasingly intertwined, raising concerns over not only physical safety but digital security in times of conflict. Cyber warfare has the potential to damage critical infrastructure and disrupt the everyday functioning of our economy and society, a threat that is becoming alarmingly more familiar.

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine continues to unfold, the media continues to propagate news of potential digital threats against Ukraine, the US, and the rest of the world, shedding light on some of the digital implications this event could have on national security.

First off, what is the Russia-Ukraine situation? 

Both founding members of the former Soviet Union, tensions between the two countries deepened over the last several years, which saw numerous protests within Ukraine against Russian sentiment as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014. NATO’s push eastward since the collapse of the Soviet Union has been perceived as a threat by Putin, writing in an article last year that the cultural and political similarities between Ukraine and Russia make them “one people”. Now, months of direct military aggravation and brinkmanship on Ukraine’s border have escalated this years-long conflict, concerning power players across the globe. While Putin has made clear that his motivation for the invasion goes beyond NATO’s “unwanted” involvement, one of Russia’s primary objectives is to prevent Ukraine’s efforts to join with NATO and Western Europe. An alliance between Ukraine and the western powers, particularly the US, could significantly boost Ukraine’s defenses.

Besides the mass destruction and loss of human life that is to be expected from this crisis, international alliances and the respect for NATO leadership that has sustained throughout history thus far are primarily at stake here. With close to 200,000 Russian troops now surrounding Ukraine and refugees pouring out daily, new intelligence has US officials preparing for various outcomes throughout and in the aftermath of the ongoing bombing of Ukrainian infrastructure – everything from a cyberattack to a nuclear strike. Importantly, what would a potential cyberattack mean for the US?

Given Russia’s use of cyber offensive capabilities and its emphasis on cyber operations as part of its broader military doctrine, preparations for a digital invasion must be made. According to recent US intelligence reports, the likelihood of a Russian hack cannot be ignored. 

On February 18th’s White House press briefing, Deputy National Security Advisor for Cyber and Emerging Technology, Anne Neuberger, discussed “troubling signs of malicious cyber activity” instigated by the Russians within the last month, including a DDoS attack that overloaded online services at the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense and state-owned banks. She also stated that the US has “technical information that links… the Russian Main Intelligence Directorate [to a transmittance of] high volumes of communications to Ukraine-based IP addresses and domains”. While these attacks were of limited impact because of the Ukrainian cyber teams’ quick response, it is indicative of the Russians’ capabilities and intentions. 

And it isn’t just Ukraine’s cyber space that is under threat. 

Russia’s leverage of its cyber resources could also potentially target NATO members and countries that have made clear their intentions to impose economic sanctions against Russia, sanctions that have been specifically outlined in February 24th’s White House statement. Apart from restrictions on Russia’s military and full blocking sanctions on major Russian financial institutions, these sanctions have also included restrictions on “Russia’s import of technological goods critical to a diversified economy and Putin’s ability to project power”. This includes Russia-wide restrictions on semiconductors, telecommunication, encryption security, and maritime technologies, to name a few. While there is dispute over how sanctions-proof Russia’s economy is, Deputy National Security Advisor for International Economics, Daleep Singh, says that “there really is no such thing as a sanctions-proof economy”. While Russia’s current economic status could sustain itself for some time, if Putin wants to follow through with his ambitions for an improved IT sector within Russia, the export controls deny him the critical technologies needed to develop the Russian economy over time and can prove effective. 

A cyber attack has the potential to disrupt global markets and expose supply chain vulnerabilities in critical areas, including energy, telecommunications, and finance sectors. A concern regarding preparations for a potential cyber attack is how prepared the private sector is. This preparedness is extremely critical in the event of such an attack. According to Neuberger, the US government has “exercised the maximum of government authorities to mandate [necessary steps to to deploy cyber defenses]”. The importance of the private sector’s digital safeguards were examined during the unfolding of the Colonial Pipeline ransomware attack in May of 2021, affecting the gasoline supply chain and consumers’ daily lives. The implications of a Russian cyber attack on not only Ukraine but the rest of the world could be devastating, ranging from the compromise of critical networks to complete blackouts of major cities. 

With Russia launching a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24th, the world is yet to see how that will impact our cyberspaces, supply chains, and economies. But it is without a doubt that this will be a bloody and costly war – for all parties involved.