CYBERWARUkraine-Russia: The First Shots Have Already Been Fired – in Cyberspace

By Robert M. Dover

Published 2 February 2022

Wars always used to begin to with the softening up of an enemy – with artillery fire, strategic bombing, missile launches. It is different now: The opening salvos in the latest chapter of hostilities are being fired in cyberspace.

Wars always used to begin to with the softening up of an enemy with artillery fire. More recently, artillery has been replaced by strategic bombers or cruise missiles fired from naval vessels hundreds of miles away. This has made for eye-grabbing prime-time viewing in countries not being targeted by smart missiles and carpet bombing.

Of course, Ukraine has been fighting Russians in the east of the country since 2014. But the opening salvos in the latest chapter of hostilities – viewed by much of the rest of the world as a potential invasion of Ukraine by its mighty neighbor – are already being fired.

The artillery being used today, however, is not high explosives. It chiefly comprises clever use of computer code and the deliberate exploitation of computer networks. This new warfare makes for a poor television spectacle, but it is doing the same job.

In 2013, the Russian general and current head of the Russian armed forces, Valery Gerasimov gave a speech in which he assessed modern warfighting. Gerasimov’s speech was widely misinterpreted as a description of the Russian way of war, but was actually a critique of NATO. Russia perceives itself – with some justification – to have faced constant interference and aggressive attention since the end of the cold war.

Russia has become expert at what has been described as the “Gerasimov doctrine” – hybrid or sub-threshold warfare – including against Ukraine. The essence of this idea is that the attacking force uses techniques that fall below a threshold that would usually trigger an armed response by the victim or its allies.

It has been established that Russian hackers attempted to disrupt electronic voting machines in the 2016 US presidential election. They have also been blamed for the intrusion into Hilary Clinton’s campaign team emails that helped Donald Trump to victory and the misinformation that has so divided the US ever since. But these were not acts of war that could justify an armed response.

Since 2015, disinformation campaigns mounted by or attributed to Russia through its proxies during various European elections, the Brexit referendum and the pandemic have similarly resulted in notable levels of public confusion and societal fractures. But these campaigns have not warranted an armed response, and occasionally – for diplomatic reasons – they have not been investigated at all. They are tactics whose effects would make a useful contribution to a military campaign without being obviously military themselves.