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Ukraine has become Russia’s experimental lab for cyber warfare, says Cranfield expert

February 2022 by Dr Danny Steed, Lecturer in Cyber Security at Cranfield University

Dr Danny Steed, Lecturer in Cyber Security at Cranfield University, comments on the Ukraine crisis from a cyber warfare perspective:

On the history of Russian cyber methods against Ukraine: "Russia has long been experimenting with cyber means to harass eastern European nations – from Estonia in 2007, to Georgia in 2008, and of course Ukraine since 2014. While Russia has specific ambitions for Ukraine in particular, the story of the way in which Russia uses cyber has been slowly developing over the course of more than 15 years. In hindsight, it is clear that Russia has been developing a playbook on how best to use cyber means to achieve its national objectives, and to deploy cyber tactics alongside more traditional military forces.

"For lack of a better phrase, Ukraine became Russia’s experimental lab for cyber warfare: from the electricity grid cyber attacks in 2015 and 2016, to Ukraine being the primary victim of the NotPetya ransomware attack in 2017, and now the relentless cyber pressure across many areas of Ukrainian government and industry."

On the Russian cyber threat and the current situation in Ukraine: “With Russian military forces now in action in Ukraine, cyber will play less of a decisive role. It will, however, continue to be used to help prevent the Ukrainian government from knowing what is happening, and try to prevent any coordinated response against Russian forces.

"Much like in Georgia in 2008, we can expect a barrage of cyber attacks alongside traditional military operations aimed at confusing the situation, preventing the gathering of factual information, and impacting the Ukrainian Government’s ability to communicate and coordinate against Russian operations. Similar to how 30 years ago air strikes were used in the preliminary stages of military operations like the Gulf War, today, Ukraine is showing us how cyber means are deployed to help ’soften’ a target domestically without resorting to hard military force."

On the wider Russian use of cyber: "What should be of great concern to Western nations is how Russia might deploy cyber means as a counter to efforts such as sanctions. With the West clearly not favouring their own military response, the use of sanctions could invite cyber attacks against Western economies as a Russian response.

"While most commentary fixates on tactical uses of Russian cyber against Ukrainian institutions, this does not tell us much we haven’t already learned from Estonia in 2007, Georgia in 2008, or indeed Ukraine over the past eight years. What should interest observers is how Russia might deploy cyber strategically against Ukrainian allies to cause division. Russian cyber attacks against Western economies, combined with non-public diplomacy, could well be how Russia plans to stop any meaningful outside resistance to its ambitions in Ukraine."




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