After months of tension and bellicose rhetoric on Europe’s eastern border, Russia has finally launched this Thursday a large-scale “special military operation” against Ukrainethe biggest invasion that Europe has seen since the Second World War and that amplifies the latent armed conflict in the east of the country since 2014. Although the operation includes traditional methods such as the launch of missiles and the deployment of tanks, Moscow has spent years with its machinery of computer warfare activated. And it is that the hybrid wars of the 21st century are also being fought on a digital front that is less noisy but crucial in destabilizing the enemy.
On January 14, Kiev suffered a cyber attack paralyzed for hours up to 70 websites of the Ukrainian Government, including those of the Ministry of Defense. “All the information about you has been made public,” said the successful raid on the country’s computer systems in a threatening tone. After accusing the Kremlinthe authorities ended up pointing to a group of cybercriminals linked to the intelligence services of Belarus.
The operation served as a psychological warning but did not surprise Ukraine. In November, its security services accused Russia of having launched more than 5,000 attacks against its country since 2014, when it forcibly annexed the peninsula of crimea. Since then, computer attacks have been a constant. During Christmas 2015, a suspected Russian cyber-military unit hacked into the Ukrainian electrical system, causing power outages across the country. In recent days, all kinds of computer attacks have been replicated that have paralyzed the websites of the Ministry of Defense and two banks in the country, making transactions and withdrawals impossible.
Militarization of cyberspace
Its potential is not less. For years now, nations around the world have been investing more and more in militarization the Cyberspace. The growing digitization of societies and their technological dependency have opened the door to actions that, despite not entailing physical violence as in traditional conflicts, can impact the economy of the enemy country. “A war is taking place with great intensity in cyberspace (…) This is already a Third World War, but we do not know the extent of the damage, or who will lose in the end, or what the configuration of the world will be as a result,” he said. at the end of december Andrey Krutskikhdirector of the Russian Department of International Information Security.
For years, the Kremlin has ramped up its cyber operations to destabilize the political, military and economic arms of its rivals. Ukraine has been their main target, but other countries such as Estonia, Georgia or United States They have also been in his sights. In 2017, the NotPetya computer virus infected the systems of Ukrainian companies, banks and media and ended up spreading around the world, causing losses of billions of dollars. Although so far no cyber attack has led to a war, experts say that a wave of incursions to collapse Kiev’s communications and the operation of its strategic sectors could be the prelude to a ground invasion.
Disinformation and propaganda
Russia has deployed its artillery in cyberspace to articulate its struggle for diplomatic, military and economic power, but also to try to impose its narrative on the open geopolitical crisis in the east of the continent. Through public media, the Kremlin has accused the US of considering the use of chemical weapons, Ukrainian forces of planning false flag attacks on the border and NATO of preparing an attack on Russia during the Winter Olympics, all without evidence.
Washington and the European Union (EU) have warned that the tactics of disinformation Russians seek to undermine their rivals, seduce public opinion and fracture alliances in the West. Information warfare is common in crisis scenarios where psychological manipulation travels in multiple directions, serving the propaganda interests of each nation. However, Russia has excelled in applying this tactic, as seen in its interference in the 2016 US election or the 2017 French presidential election.
Unlike what he did in 2014 during the invasion of Crimea, when he was vice president alongside Barack Obama, Joe Biden has chosen to launch all kinds of accusations -intelligence information without corroborating evidence- against the Kremlin: from preparing a false flag operation as a pretext to justify an attack to the creation of false videos with the same objective. Although Kiev has criticized that this speech fuels “panic”, the White House has used public warnings as a strategy to preempt and undermine Moscow’s disinformation campaign and force it onto the defensive. Washington may say that it had already warned, but the Kremlin has opted for large-scale action.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism