Evolving Cyber Operationsand Capabilities


Most networks can be breached, and most software has exploitable flaws. This can give unparalleled advantage to attackers, but the situation in Ukraine suggests that an energetic and thorough defense can prove more than adequate in matching this advantage. The Ukraine experience can guide decisions on cyber defense, and it suggests that adequate cyber defense will require different approaches, involve new actors, and be complex for nations to construct and coordinate. As part of the UK National Cyber Security Centre’s efforts to shape debate and discussion around cybersecurity issues, this collection of essays examines the war in Ukraine, with a view to the wider debate around the role and value of cyber capabilities.

The “information space” is one of the key spaces in this conflict. Both sides have vied to shape public narratives and international opinion. Much has been written about the West’s use of the rapid declassification of strategic intelligence to counter and debunk Russian lies about actions in Ukraine. Similarly, much debate amongst academics and commentators has sought to understand whether or not the world is witnessing “cyber war” in Ukraine, or whether and how cyber operations add value to furthering a state’s strategic objectives. Originally, this discussion had a focus on cyber’s offensive utility. The following essays shift the focus toward the use of cyber capabilities for defensive or protective purposes and look at the Ukraine conflict through the lens of cyber defense to identify critical lessons from Ukraine on the construction of cyber resilience.

Serious thinking about cyber defense has largely transitioned from giving deterrence a central place in defensive strategies to focusing on the concept of resilience. Democracies cannot expect to deter adversaries from attempting to use cyber operations to advance their national objectives. This leads to the conclusion, discussed in all of the essays, that the goal for national policy must be cyber resilience: the ability to minimize disruption to critical data and services. Advocating for deterrence still serves a political purpose by signaling a desire to avoid conflict, but it is no longer the foundation of national cyber defense.

A good example of this is the new national cyber strategy published in March by the United States. The strategy never uses the word “deterrence” because, in the view of those responsible for its drafting, deterrence had failed routinely in cyberspace. Deterrence assumes that an adversary can be dissuaded from action; resilience assumes that adversary cyber action is inevitable. This has led to the conclusion that resilience is a better approach to cyber defense, particularly against a range of adversaries we confront, which includes not only states but also criminals and proxy forces. In this sense, cyber resilience protects against a much wider—and future—set of threats.

These essays explore different aspects of defense and resilience—including the actors that contribute to it—and identify lessons that Western countries can draw from the Ukrainian experience to build robust, collective cyber resilience. This includes the power of partnerships, whether in responding to cyberattacks or ensuring the continuation of vital services amidst conflict, and the unprecedented coalition of government, multinational, industry, and civil society actors whose efforts have enabled a stronger Ukrainian defense. It should be noted that the most important aspect of resilience is only discussed indirectly in the essays: the need for political and social resilience. Lonergan, for example, notes that the political implications of cyber actions have proven to be more important than their military effect. One of Putin’s many miscalculations was the belief that Ukrainian defenses would quickly crumble. A Russian analyst (now in exile) suggests the precedent of Afghanistan as shaping Russian expectations, since in that case a well-equipped and Western-trained army evaporated in a matter of a few weeks. Putin may have expected Kyiv to react like Kabul.

However, Ukraine’s leaders and people were not ready to concede to Russian suzerainty. The keystone of resilience is the political will to continue to resist. While it can be an elusive term, this political will forms the basis for diplomacy and defense…


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