Cyber Conflict in the Russia-Ukraine War

The war in Ukraine is the largest military conflict of the cyber age. Carnegie’s paper series ‘Cyber Conflict in the Russia-Ukraine War’ represents our first offerings in what will be a long, global effort to understand the cyber elements of the Ukraine war.

The war in Ukraine is the largest military conflict of the cyber age and the first to incorporate such significant levels of cyber operations on all sides. For scholars, theorists, and practitioners of cyber conflict (and combat generally) this war provides precious material for study. Studying this war can be especially interesting and perhaps instructive because its course thus far has been unexpected to many: Russia, one of the most powerful cyber nations, has fared poorly despite facing a much inferior Ukraine, operating in a familiar environment, having much time to prepare, and recruiting agents on the ground who might facilitate physical access to systems.

Scholars in Carnegie’s Technology and International Affairs Program for years have been quietly convening working groups on cyber strategy, building on our publication in 2017: Understanding Cyber Conflict: 14 Analogies (Georgetown University Press). As the Ukraine war has stretched on, we have decided to sequentially publish a series of papers assessing its conduct and potential implications.

We emphasize “potential” to acknowledge several important considerations. The war is not over. The facts of its conduct, including attempted and achieved cyber operations by aggressors and defenders of all sorts, will never be completely known, especially by those who rely on unclassified sources, as we do. Many facts that are known will be disputed, and their interpretations and implications will be constructed and debated for years to come.

Recognizing these realities, most of the summary observations and apparent conclusions about the cyber aspects of this conflict are hypotheses intended to fuel analysis and debate. Such deliberation can benefit scholars and practitioners around the world and, less importantly, help us revise and improve our own work to make it more beneficial in the future. For stylistic reasons, we do not constantly repeat our heuristic intentions and bracket every sentence or paragraph with caveats. But readers should understand that we are offering propositions to be considered more than conclusions to be accepted.

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