Cyber Security and Emerging Threats

The Importance of Cyber Security Vigilance: The  Experience of Ukraine  

The Russian invasion of Ukraine passed its one-year anniversary on February 24th this year, without a clear end to the war in sight. Russia has gained and lost territory, while Ukraine holds Kyiv and is stubbournly defending Bakhmut with the aid of foreign arms and funding. This situation is reminiscent of the conventional wars of the twentieth century, but a relatively novel feature of this conflict centres on cyberattacks and high-technology tactics, which are deployed in tandem with traditional kinetic warfare. Even recent twenty-first century conflicts, such as the NATO missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, did not exhibit the kind of tit-for-tat cyber engagements like those that have been a reliable feature of the war between Russia and Ukraine.

War is increasingly asymmetrical, in that one power drastically outspends, outproduces, and out-arms the other. This is the case in Russia’s war against Ukraine; Moscow is the dominant combatant in that contest. Russia avails itself of more arms, population, and financial resources than Kyiv, though Ukraine continues to hold its own, to the enduring gratitude and respect of the Western democracies being shielded by its valiance. In addition to the obvious threat posed by Russian conventional military ordnance, Ukraine is vulnerable to grey zone threats, including disinformation operations, economic coercion, and cyber operations, which must be the object of continued military focus. These grey zone threats are some of the new tactics marking twenty-first century warfare, and though they do not necessarily rise to the destructive potential of traditional kinetic warfare, they should not be taken lightly. 

The majority of international coverage of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has primarily focused on human casualties and territorial losses, but Ukraine’s domestic intelligence agency, the Security Service of Ukraine (SSU), recently released a report that claimed that the organization has blocked over 4500 cyberattacks last year, mostly directed at critical infrastructure. Ukraine is not a new target of these types of attacks and withstood a major cyber assault in 2015 after the Russian annexation of Crimea. It is widely suspected, though not conclusively proven, that Russia caused a significant power outage that left over a million Ukrainian citizens without energy during that winter

The SSU noted that cyber attacks are primarily directed at civilian targets such as energy supplies, communications, and government infrastructure. Foreign interference in Ukraine is also reflected in disinformation campaigns and propaganda about the war, leading to the need for citizens to recognize and become cyber-literate for scams and false information. A report found that Ukraine’s power grid is continually under attack, and citizens are taking emergency measures like storing up food and water, and making sure electronics are charged in the face of uncertain power supplies. Despite the continued attacks, Ukraine has stabilized its infrastructure and is continuing to diligently monitor for grey zone threats. In addition to military ordnance, Western aid should include equipment and expertise that give Ukrainians the wherewithal to defend themselves in this unconventional theatre of modern interstate conflict. 

Canadians must not be lulled into dismissing cyber warfare as a distant or abstract problem. A 2022 report spoke to the global prevalence of cyberattacks that year. It is not an issue that will go away and should be a major focus for all Western defence sectors.  A report found that 85.7% of Canadian companies experienced at least one cyber attack in 2021. This statistic is all the more arresting considering Canada is ranked 13 out of 75 countries for cyber security capabilities. While Canada and the rest of NATO aid Kyiv and watch the situation unfold in Ukraine, the war remains a poignant reminder of the importance of security and that no country is truly safe from attack, especially not when cyber defences are lacking. Strong cyber capabilities coupled with traditional defence can mean the difference between a conflict won or lost in the twenty-first century. 

Photo: “red padlock on black computer keyboard,” (2021) by FLY:D via unsplash. Public domain.

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in articles are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the NATO Association of Canada.

Danna Houssian
Danna is a Political Science MA student at Simon Fraser University. Her primary research interests are the politics of migration and refugees and, as a current student of the NATO Field School, international relations and defence. She enjoys hiking and exploring beautiful BC in her spare time.