Technology in the Ukraine war

Abdel-Meguid Abul-Ela, Tuesday 22 Mar 2022

Key encounters in the Ukraine war are taking place in cyberspace, with major technology companies around the world taking up positions on the Russian military operations, writes Abdel-Meguid Abul-Ela

Fathi Abul-Ezz
illustration: Fathi

The military conflict is raging on between Russian and separatist forces and Ukrainian forces in Ukrainian cities close to the Ukraine-Russia border and near the capital Kyiv.

However, there are also other battles that go beyond the narrow parameters of geography taking place, since alongside the military battles, political decisions, and economic sanctions, another key aspect of the Ukraine war is occurring in cyberspace, as the war has forced challenges on major technology companies around the world.

Cyberspace has become a domain for cyberattacks as part of a hybrid war, and there has also been an extensive use of commercial satellites for offensive purposes.

Political science and international relations see major multinational companies having become key global political players in the war, with the conflict itself and the resulting polarised global landscape forcing the major tech companies to take a stand, especially due to pressure by Ukraine and the West on companies criticised for “not doing enough to suppress misinformation about the Russian invasion of Ukraine”, according to critics.

On 25 February, US Senator Mark Warner sent a letter to Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai saying that the company’s platforms were conveying misleading information that negatively impacted users and benefited Russia in the war. He said that sites owned by the company, including Google and YouTube, were continuing to monetise content by parties associated with Russian propaganda and other campaigns.

At the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Ukrainian government also tried to weaponise technology to defend itself. The Ukrainian deputy prime minister and minister for digital transformation, Mykhailo Fedorov, tried to impose a digital blockade on Moscow by pressuring the major tech companies to oppose Russia and urging Russian citizens to oppose the war alongside the sanctions by the US and Europe against it.

Several major tech companies agreed and decided to oppose the Russian invasion of Ukraine, whether due to political or public pressure or because of purely political positions on the war. These companies have become political players in the war because of their technology and because of decisions that were politically motivated.

On 26 February, Google blocked Russian state media outlets from receiving advertising money for material on their websites and mobile apps. It also imposed restrictions on access to the platforms of several Russian channels on YouTube in Ukraine. It stopped revenue from going to them for advertising, and it limited recommendations for watching videos on these channels on the platform.

On 27 February, some GoogleMaps tools that that help navigate traffic were temporarily suspended in Ukraine, since they could provide strategic information that Russia could benefit from in its military operations. Google Pay was also suspended in Russia.

On 2 March, Apple announced that it was temporarily stopping selling its products in Russia. Earlier, it had stopped exporting its products to outlets in Russia. Apple Pay and other services were restricted, and the apps for the Russian RT and Sputnik TV channels were removed from the App Store outside Russia. Navigation apps were halted in Ukraine as a pre-emptive measure to protect Ukrainian citizens.

On 3 March, Apple changed the appearance of the Crimean Peninsula on its maps app to show it as part of Ukraine, when previously it had appeared as part of Russia when browsing from inside Russia, but as an independent region when browsing from anywhere else in the world.

On 4 March, Microsoft decided to suspend all new sales of products and services in Russia because of the “unjustified and illegal invasion” of Ukraine. It added that it would halt many aspects of its business in Russia in compliance with the Western sanctions imposed on the country, as well as helping cybersecurity officials in Ukraine defend themselves against Russian attacks.

Microsoft had previously announced the removal of the RT app from its app store, while Intel said it would suspend all shipments to customers in Russia and Belarus.

Despite accusations that Meta (formerly Facebook) has violated US sanctions by allowing Russian propaganda posts that legitimise the war and others that aim to recruit fighters and solicit donations to support pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine, Facebook has blocked the Arabic-language Sputnik page since 21 January, restricted the Russian-language Sputnik page on 24 February for 90 days, and reduced access to it.

On 26 February, head of Meta cybersecurity Nathaniel Gleicher announced a series of decisions by the company regarding the Ukraine war, including banning the Russian state media from advertising or profiting on the company’s platforms, providing locked profiles in Ukraine, and temporarily suspending viewing and searching for friends lists on accounts in Ukraine to prevent targeting. The company also added visibility, privacy, and security alerts.

On 28 February, Twitter said it would add an icon to all content generated by media outlets and websites affiliated with the Russian government, block URL links from its search function, and not recommend tweets that include such articles. Twitter had already removed advertising on its site in Russia and Ukraine to “focus on important public safety information and ensure that ads do not distract from it”.

On 6 March, Netflix suspended its services in Russia in protest against the war. On 2 March, it halted the purchase of rights and new Netflix productions in Russia.

 

MEASURES AND COUNTER-MEASURES: In response to such actions by the US tech companies, the Russian government has taken counter-measures against some tech companies and social-media platforms.

Roskomnadzor, Russia’s Federal Service for the Supervision of Communications, Information Technology, and Mass Media, partially restricted access to Facebook on 25 February in response to Meta’s restrictions on the Russian media.

Then on 26 February, Twitter accused the Russian government of restricting activity on its website inside the country. On 4 March, Roskomnadzor decided to block Facebook and Twitter in Russia altogether, and on 11 March Instagram was blocked as well.

Meanwhile, satellites have also been playing key roles in the Ukraine war related to aspects of technology, intelligence, and the military. On 27 February, US billionaire Elon Musk announced that Internet services via the satellite Starlink owned by his company SpaceX had been activated in Ukraine.

 Ten hours earlier, Fedorov had requested that Internet services in his country be reinforced in the light of current and potential Internet outages impacting the country’s infrastructure. Intense fighting in Kharkiv has led to widespread Internet outages, according to Internet activity watchdog NetBlocks. The ability to connect to the largest Internet company in Ukraine, GigaTrans, has also dropped to 20 per cent of normal levels.

Commercial satellites have been playing an intelligence, military, and media role in Ukraine, providing high-quality visual material to media platforms about Russian military movements and preparations, the effects of bombing and attacks, attempts to flee Ukraine, border crossings and asylum-seeking.

One company whose satellites have played a key role in informing the world about the situation in Ukraine is Maxar Technologies. Global media outlets have used images taken by commercial satellites that mostly belong to Maxar to document Russian attacks on Ukrainian cities and monitor the Russian military buildup. Political and intelligence agencies have also benefited from those sources.

Egyptian analyst Mohamed Qashqoush told Al-Ahram Weekly that images produced by such satellites had predicted there would be a war in Ukraine, but not its exact date, because pictures taken by them of Russian military mobilisation had shown that war was imminent. Qashqoush said that commercial satellites would continue to play a supporting role to military satellites during the war, with the latter remaining the most reliable for intelligence gathering.

Russia’s previous record also shows Moscow’s reliance on “hybrid warfare” and its use of cyberattacks alongside regular military operations. The prelude to Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia was cyberattacks on Georgian government websites, for example, and Russia was also accused of cyberattacks to disrupt communications when it annexed Crimea in 2014.

Russia was accused of using cyberattacks during earlier tensions with Ukraine, such as in 2017 when it launched the devastating NotPetya virus in Ukraine that caused more than $10 billion in damage worldwide.

Ukraine has said it responded to about 1,200 cyberattacks in just nine months last year. Some 70 websites belonging to Ukrainian ministries, government agencies, and embassies were attacked and crashed on 14 January. On 15 February, the Ukrainian communications supervisory

authority revealed that 10 websites had come under cyberattack, including those of the ministries of defence, foreign affairs, and culture, as well as two state-owned financial institutions, Oshad Bank and Privat24.

Microsoft confirmed the attacks and reported that dozens of computer systems in several Ukrainian government agencies had been infected by malware disguised as WhisperGate ransomware. On 28 February, Microsoft said that hours before the start of the war, “another round of devastating cyberattacks against Ukraine’s digital infrastructures was recorded.”

On 8 March, Google confirmed that Russian hackers known to Internet security experts had been involved in espionage and cyberattack operations on Ukrainian targets and European allies. Google’s threat analysis group, which focuses on countering and warning against hacking operations, revealed that the Russian hacking unit Fancy Bear had sent fake e-mails to the Ukrainian media company UkrNet.

At the same time, the Belarus Ghostwriter Group attempted to launch cyberattacks against Polish and Ukrainian government and military institutions. The Mustang Panda Group from China sent virus-laden attachments to European entities.

In tracing the origins of such attacks, the West and Ukraine have pointed the finger straight at Russia. Oleg Nikolenko, spokesman for the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry, confirmed that the Ukrainian Security Services have information that hackers linked to Russian intelligence might be behind the massive cyberattack that took place on 14 January.

The Ukrainian Ministry of Digital Transformation also confirmed that the evidence indicates that Russia was behind the cyberattack, signs of the hybrid war that Moscow has been waging against Ukraine since 2014, according to a ministry statement.

Moscow has strongly denied any involvement in cyberattacks on Ukraine. In an interview with the US network CNN on 16 January, Russian Presidential Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said his country had nothing to do with the cyberattacks.

“We have heard accusations against Russia, that it is behind them. But no evidence has been presented, which we believe is a continuation of other unsubstantiated accusations,” Peskov said. “We are accustomed to Ukrainians blaming Russia for everything, even the bad weather.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin, however, did not deny the possibility of such attacks in the future. “Patriotic hackers may take it upon themselves to defend the country’s interests via the Internet,” he said.

Russia has also been on the receiving end of cyberattacks. Putin’s official Kremlin website (kremlin.ru) crashed on 26 February following reports of cyberattacks on other official Russian government and media websites.

An anonymous group declared a cyberwar on Russia on 24 February, claiming responsibility for the attack on the RT websites.

 

CYBERWAR: Despite the major Russian experience of cyberwar and the cyberattacks announced on the sidelines of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the cyberwar between the two countries is still under control, even if there are concerns of its escalating to another level.

Experts have expressed their concerns about the exacerbation of cyber-risks the longer the Ukrainian war goes on, whether the result of Russian cyber-expertise or by entities not directly related to the conflict, perhaps having subversive or even simply criminal motives.

But thus far the Ukrainian war has not witnessed operations introducing high levels of danger, such as the attack on the Ukrainian electricity network in 2014, or the NotPetya attack in 2017, whose effects extended to many companies around the world.

This has been confirmed by the US, with one senior US military official reporting in early March that Russia had not used the full range of its capabilities for electronic warfare, although there were indications that it had used it to its advantage in some places, especially in jamming at the local level.

The Russian military also moved electronic warfare equipment to the Russian-Ukrainian border before the Russian military operation in Ukraine began.

Samuel Bendett, an adjunct senior fellow at the US Centre for a New American Security, a Washington think tank, described to US tech media brand FedScoop the absence of front-line electronic warfare systems as being “baffling to those who monitor Russian tactics in electronic warfare” and drawing attention to the question of why this could be the case.

Aaron Brantly, director of the Tech4Humanity Lab at the US university Virginia Tech, cited reports that Ukrainian forces had seized Russian communications equipment and that Russian forces may suffer from poor or inadequate logistics or that modern military equipment is not being accessed.

This could mean that Russian forces are not using signal-jamming devices because Moscow is worried that they could affect Russia’s own communications, as was the experience of the US during the war in Afghanistan. The Russian forces also rely on an inflexible communication network, and Russia may be relying on Ukraine’s own domestic communications infrastructure.

At the same time, the West has bolstered Ukraine’s capabilities and provided it with advanced equipment that is difficult to jam.

Russia’s actions may be based on a political decision or on a deliberate strategic choice. For Qashqoush, it would be unrealistic to compare Russian cyberattacks in the Ukraine war with those carried out in 2014, since Russia did not have direct competition in the field during the Crimean crisis.

In the Ukrainian cyberwar, however, there seems to be a deterrent factor and a high strategic cost. Russia is an importer of advanced technology, which means it could suffer greatly from the West’s technology embargo. Its cyber-capabilities remain inferior to those of Ukraine’s NATO allies, which means Moscow would only want to use cyberwarfare to a limited degree lest the West uses its superior capabilities against it, if the cyber-conflict escalates in parallel with battles on the ground.

Nevertheless, as the conflict progresses, Moscow may resort to further electronic warfare to target a possible insurgency in Ukraine and use drones to detect and jam the signals of the Ukrainian forces.

“At a time when Russia is ready to bomb entire Ukrainian cities, we may see disruptions in electronic communications and tactical cyberwarfare activity to influence or sabotage the Ukrainian decision-making process and internal communication,” Klon Kitchen, senior fellow at Washington think tank the American Enterprise Institute, explained to FedScoop.

In conclusion, while the combat on the ground in Ukraine is expected to end at some point when objectives are achieved or a strategic balance reached, the cyberwar between Russia and Ukraine may not end quite so promptly.

This is especially the case as cyberspace is expected to feature more and more importantly in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict and in overall military strategies as a key effect of the Ukraine war, Qashqoush told the Weekly.

The writer is an assistant researcher at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 March, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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