Staunton, February 22 – Since the Crimean Anschluss, Russia has attacked Ukraine not only on the ground but also in cyberspace, Vladimir Gorbulin says. And Ukraine must respond both by building up its capacity to defend itself in this sector and also develop the capacity to take the battle back into Russia as well.
On Gazeta.zn.ua February 20, Gorbulin said it was important to begin focusing on this aspect of hybrid war not only because it is becoming ever more important but because it is clear that the conflict with Russia is “a question not of a year or two but rather of a longer period”.
Indeed, he argues, Ukraine must view the conflict in cyberspace as especially important as a method which “traditionally weaker states have used to oppose the aggressive actions of stronger ones,” an “asymmetric” response intended to “wear down” the opponent and lead him to change course.
And one of the first things to recognize about cyber war, Gorbulin continues, is that the line between offense and defense is different: One cannot defend unless one understands what the offense is, and one must recognize that “attacks always turn out to be cheaper and more ruinous for the opponent while defense is extremely complicated and long-term.”
In the months since the annexation of Crimea and “according to some reports, from the time of the EuroMaidan,” Russia has “employed cyber attacks as a constituent part of its hybrid war against [Ukraine],” he says, including but not limited to denial of service attacks against government institutions, monitoring of Ukrainian telecommunications, and infecting Ukrainian networks with various viruses.
Cyber attacks and cyber espionage, he continues, are “inflicting harm on [Ukraine’s] defense capability,” and that has become so severe that senior Ukrainian officials have said that ensuring cyber security is today among the “most extraordinarily serious tasks” Kyiv faces.
Obviously, developing Ukraine’s defense capabilities in this area is important, Gorbulin acknowledges, but he argues that Kyiv must stop focusing on defense alone and recognize that under current conditions, “cyberspace must become an instrument of our asymmetrical response to aggression.”
Ukraine’s enemy “must know that when he tries to use cyberspace to harm the national interests of Ukraine, he will face a massive cyber response,” something that at a minimum will force him to spend more on defense and thus meeting “one of the goals of an asymmetric response.”
Another reason for shifting this perspective, Gorbulin says, is that the West may provide Ukraine eventually with defensive weaponry but it is unlikely to give Kyiv what it will need to defeat and push back Russia from where it is now. In the cyber area, Ukraine can act more independently in that regard.
Ukrainian universities produce several thousand IT specialist every year who could be enlisted in this cause, he suggests. But there are problems: the government still spends more time on talking about how to organize such an effort than it does on actually doing so, and it has not yet found a way to pay such people enough to keep them from seeking work abroad.
And yet a third reason for focusing on cyber war, Gorbulin says, is that NATO following its Wales Summit in 2014 has declared that it is prepared to help Ukraine with cyber defense if only Kyiv will take the steps necessary to allow the Western alliance to do so rather than remain mired in bureaucratic infighting.
“One can evaluate in different ways the current preparation of the state to conduct an active phase of armed resistance to the aggressor,” the analyst says. But there can be no debate over the fact that “cyberspace is a place where we really can and must give a fitting rebuff to the opponent.”
“Cyberspace must become one of the elements of [Ukraine’s] asymmetric response to aggression, a real front of our resistance. The state has almost everything necessary for that, and what the state doesn’t have, its citizens do,” Gorbulin says, and as in the past, state and society must work together to oppose Russian aggression.