In January 2022, alleged Russian-linked hackers conducted a major cyberattack on the websites of the Ukraine government. They posted an ominous message, which read, “Ukrainians! … All information about you has become public. Be afraid and expect worse. It’s your past, present and future.” Amid this incident, NATO and Ukraine signed an agreement to deepen practical cybersecurity cooperation.
A month later, Russia invaded Ukraine.
In another part of the world, the second ASEAN Digital Ministers’ Meeting (ADGMIN) convened in January 2022. Representatives “reiterated the importance of enhancing cybersecurity cooperation,” especially given the “recent rise in global cybersecurity … attacks and threats.” Underlining those concerns, Southeast Asia was reportedly both a target and launchpad for global cyberattacks.
In hindsight, these developments foreshadowed an inter-state war in Europe not seen since World War II – and how its political, economic, and cyber implications reach all the way to the Asia-Pacific.
Moreover, cyberattacks as a precursor to kinetic warfare are now a reality. This is reflected not only by the aforementioned hacking incident, but also by the cyberattack on the Viasat satellite internet network that affected Ukraine and parts of Europe an hour before Russian troops invaded Ukraine.
As the first anniversary of the invasion draws near, there is no end in sight. Both sides have experienced battlefield gains and setbacks. Civilian life being impacted by war and made more miserable by the inconvenience, if not disruption, cyberattacks might be perceived as a gain for the aggressor. Yet neither Russia nor Ukraine has achieved a strategic gain that could compel the other party into diplomatic negotiations.
Instead, the war has shattered the myth of swift and decisive victory in both the kinetic and cyber domains. Instead, it is a new era of trench warfare comprising both domains, with the latter seeing Ukrainians persistently defending their digital networks and infrastructures against cyberattacks. Information campaigns have also amplified the psychological impact of the cyberattacks.
All these developments will have ramifications for Asia-Pacific countries with their own worries about cybersecurity.
Ukraine leaders believe that Russia is preparing to launch a new major offensive. Relatedly, the narratives from Russian leaders and diplomats – for domestic and international audiences – show a fresh dose of bellicosity.
On February 2, Russian President Vladimir Putin made a fierce and propagandistic speech to conjure the spirit of the Soviet army and forecast victory. In Southeast Asia, the Russian Embassy in Singapore on February 6 lambasted Singaporean minister K. Shanmugam on Facebook for saying that Russia “might choose to employ more dangerous weapons.”
It is, therefore, unsurprising that the UN secretary-general is concerned that the world could be moving toward a “wider war” with “its eyes open.” The world has reasons to worry about the global implications of the war entering a new and more intense phase. This phase could see the use of more advanced weaponry and an expanding theater of war that further imperils the rules-based multilateral order – including in the cyber domain.
But what would the cyber dimension of this new phase look like, and are there reasons for the world to be concerned? Interestingly, there have been suggestions that cyberattacks are ineffective in helping Russia achieve its political-military objectives in Ukraine, and that the bear’s cyber bark is worse than its bite.
Still, the fact remains that Russian cyberattacks on Ukraine are persistent and have reportedly tripled since 2022. While this could have initially been a sign of desperation, the situation may have shifted.
First, it could signal that Russia is planning for a long war of attrition, including in the cyber domain, which did not exist in past world wars. Indeed, an analysis released by Ukraine’s cybersecurity agency in January 2023 states that “cyberattacks are entirely consistent with Russia’s overall military strategy.”
Second, the strength of Ukraine’s cyber defenses is attributable to assistance from the partnership of Western tech giants and governments, including the U.S. Cyber Command’s “persistent engagement.” This is the digital equivalent of the West supplying Ukraine with intelligence support and military aid. The unceasing cyberattacks could be Russia’s persistent countermove against this.
Third, Russia employs the narrative of the civilizational conflict in its information campaigns to justify its invasion of Ukraine. This instigates a clash between civilians besides militaries. In that regard, a calculated use of limited resources may entail using cyberattacks to wear down civilian populations in Ukraine and other countries that support Ukraine.
There is arguably little reason for Russian cyberattacks to decrease. But there are reasons for them to spread, given additional military and political support for Ukraine from outside Europe. For example, Australia and South Korea are ramping up military assistance, and Ukraine has signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) with ASEAN.
Furthermore, NATO is forging closer relations with the Asia-Pacific. As South Korea and Japan perceive that European security is intertwined with the region, both have joined the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defense Centre of Excellence (CCDCOE). Russia (and China) would perceive this development as NATO’s expansion to the Asia-Pacific and near eastern Russia.
As such, it is prudent for Asia-Pacific countries to prepare for spillover effects – such as new disinformation, intelligence collection, DDOS, and hacktivist attacks – in the cyber domain in case the Russia-Ukraine war escalates. If there is one certainty in the war, it is that Russian-linked cyber operations may also attempt to influence friends of Ukraine and NATO from beyond Europe.
Perhaps this is an issue that ASEAN-led mechanisms such as the ASEAN Regional Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT) and the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting-Plus could look in to boost regional cyber resilience. There is an urgent need to address this issue, as it could become an emerging area of insecurity for the Asia-Pacific, driven by fast-moving developments.