Lessons from the First Cyberwar: How Supporting Ukraine on the Digital Battlefield Can Help Improve the UK’s Online Resilience

David Kirichenko

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine triggered the largest war in Europe since World War II. The invasion also marked the first all-out cyber war between two nation-states, as Russia attempted to integrate cyberattacks with physical strikes. Ukrainian digital infrastructure and systems were put to the test against what many experts previously feared would be a “digital Pearl Harbor”. Just as Ukraine’s valiant resistance on the battlefield took the world by surprise in the early days of the war, its cyber defences also stood firm, successfully weathering the initial cyber onslaught.

Russian attempts to secure cyber victories early on were largely thwarted, with disruptions to Ukraine’s military satellite provider, Viasat, proving only temporary and having minimal impact. Ukraine used its extensive experience from Russia’s initial invasion in 2014 to prepare for the full-scale invasion in 2022, both on the cyber and physical fronts. What was different about the cyber defences was not only the important role that Western governments played in strengthening Ukraine’s defences, but the increasingly important role that Western tech companies would play. Cyber warfare is also becoming decentralised and crowdsourced as both Ukraine and Russia look to non-state actors to support cyber campaigns and the growing role of civilians.

The West must reframe its thinking about how it supports Ukraine and helps to improve Ukraine’s capabilities to conduct a larger cyber offensive against Russia in support of its battlefield objectives. Russia’s cyber war against Ukraine and the West is part of its wider campaign to prevail on the physical front and destroy Ukraine before moving further West. Keeping Ukraine alive in the fight and supporting its defence won’t bring victory and peace, but giving Ukraine the abilities and means to win on the digital and physical fronts will protect the Western world. Given how interconnected the world is through the internet and our digitised societies, protecting Ukraine’s network would also mean the West was protecting its own network, as was seen in the devastating NotPetya attacks in 2017.

Furthermore, as Western tech companies depart from Russia and Russia is forced to leverage Chinese or domestic tech, the opportunities for Ukraine to conduct more devastating cyberattacks will expand. Helping Ukraine wage these cyberattacks will help the West learn more about how these weapons can be used in future conflicts and how to improve cyber defences against certain exploits. Furthermore, the UK should take lessons from Russia’s cyber aggression and how it has exposed vulnerabilities in critical infrastructure. These lessons will inform how to improve cyber defences and ensure robust processes are in place for the private and public sectors to work closely in the event of a future cyber war.

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