Ukraine Russia actual conflict? should the UK expect a salvo of cyber-attacks

Report Wajahat Ali Khan

The armed conflict in Ukraine first erupted in early 2014 and quickly transitioned to a long stalemate, with regular shelling and skirmishes occurring along the front line that separates Russian- and Ukrainian-controlled border regions in the east. Since Russia launched a full-scale military invasion into Ukraine on February 24, 2022, fighting has caused over one hundred civilian casualties and pushed tens of thousands of Ukrainians to flee to neighbouring countries—including Poland, a NATO country where U.S. troops are preparing to help.
In October 2021, Russia began moving troops and military equipment near its border with Ukraine, reigniting concerns over a potential invasion. Commercial satellite imagery, social media posts, and publicly released intelligence from November and December 2021 showed armour, missiles, and other heavy weaponry moving toward Ukraine with no official explanation. By December, more than one hundred thousand Russian troops were in place near the Russia-Ukraine border and U.S. intelligence officials warned that Russia may be planning an invasion for early 2022.In mid-December 2021, Russia’s foreign ministry issued a set of demands calling for the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to cease any military activity in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, to commit against further NATO expansion toward Russia, and to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO in the future. The United States and other NATO allies rejected these demands and warned Russia they would impose severe economic sanctions if Russia invaded Ukraine. The United States sent additional military assistance to Ukraine, including ammunition, small arms, and other defensive weaponry.

In early February 2022, U.S. President Joe Biden ordered around three thousand U.S. troops to deploy to Poland and Romania—NATO countries that border Ukraine—to counter Russian troops stationed near its border with Ukraine and reassure NATO allies. Satellite imagery showed the largest deployment of Russian troops to its border with Belarus since the end of the Cold War. Negotiations between the United States, Russia, and European powers—including France and Germany—did not result in a resolution. While Russia released a statement claiming to draw down a certain number of troops, reports emerged of an increasing Russian troop presence at the border with Ukraine.
In late February 2022, the United States warned that Russia intended to invade Ukraine, citing Russia’s growing military presence at the Russia-Ukraine border. Russian President Vladimir Putin then ordered troops to Luhansk and Donetsk, separatist regions in Eastern Ukraine partly controlled by Russian-backed separatists, claiming the troops served a “peacekeeping” function. The United States responded by imposing sanctions on the Luhansk and Donetsk regions and the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline a few days later. On February 24, during a United Nations Security Council meeting to dissuade Russia from attacking Ukraine, Putin announced the beginning of a full-scale land, sea, and air invasion of Ukraine targeting Ukrainian military assets and cities across the country. Biden declared this attack “unprovoked and unjustified” and has since issued severe sanctions in coordination with European allies targeting four of Russia’s largest banks, its oil and gas industry, and U.S. technology exports to the country. The United Nations, G7, EU, and other countries continue to condemn Russian actions and vow to respond.

The crisis in Ukraine began with protests in the capital city of Kyiv in November 2013 against Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to reject a deal for greater economic integration with the European Union. After a violent crackdown by state security forces unintentionally drew an even greater number of protesters and escalated the conflict, President Yanukovych fled the country in February 2014. In March 2014, Russian troops took control of Ukraine’s Crimean region, before formally annexing the peninsula after Crimeans voted to join the Russian Federation in a disputed local referendum. Russian President Vladimir Putin cited the need to protect the rights of Russian citizens and Russian speakers in Crimea and southeast Ukraine. The crisis heightened ethnic divisions, and two months later pro-Russian separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine held a referendum to declare independence from Ukraine.

Violence in eastern Ukraine between Russian-backed separatist forces and the Ukrainian military has by conservative estimates killed more than 10,300 people and injured nearly 24,000 since April 2014. Although Moscow has denied its involvement, Ukraine and NATO have reported the build-up of Russian troops and military equipment near Donetsk and Russian cross-border shelling.
In July 2014, the situation in Ukraine escalated into an international crisis and put the United States and the European Union (EU) at odds with Russia when a Malaysian Airlines flight was shot down over Ukrainian airspace, killing all 298 onboard. Dutch air accident investigators concluded in October 2015 that the plane had been downed by a Russian-built surface-to-air missile. In September 2016, investigators said that the missile system was provided by Russia, determining it was moved into eastern Ukraine and then back to Russian territory following the downing of the airplane.
Since February 2015, France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine have attempted to broker a cessation in violence through the Minsk Accords. The agreement includes provisions for a cease-fire, withdrawal of heavy weaponry, and full Ukrainian government control throughout the conflict zone. However, efforts to reach a diplomatic settlement and satisfactory resolution have been unsuccessful.
In April 2016, NATO announced that the alliance would deploy four battalions to Eastern Europe, rotating troops through Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland to deter possible future Russian aggression elsewhere in Europe, particularly in the Baltics. These battalions were joined by two U.S. Army tank brigades, deployed to Poland in September 2017 to further bolster the alliance’s deterrence presence.
Ukraine has been the target of several cyberattacks since the conflict started in 2014. In December 2015, more than 225,000 people lost power across Ukraine in an attack, and in December 2016 parts of Kyiv experienced another power blackout following a similar attack targeting a Ukrainian utility company. In June 2017, government and business computer systems in Ukraine were hit by the Not Petya cyberattack; the crippling attack, attributed to Russia, spread to computer systems worldwide and caused billions of dollars in damages.

Security assistance to Ukraine increased further during the Donald Trump administration, alongside continued pressure on Russia over its involvement in eastern Ukraine. In January 2018, the United States imposed new sanctions on twenty-one individuals, including several Russian officials, and nine companies linked to the conflict. In March 2018, the State Department approved the sale of anti-tank weapons to Ukraine, the first sale of lethal weaponry since the conflict began. In October 2018, Ukraine joined the United States and seven other North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries in a series of large-scale air exercises in western Ukraine. The exercises came after Russia held its annual military exercises in September 2018, the largest since the fall of the Soviet Union.

The current conflict has severely strained U.S.-Russia relations and increased the risk of a wider European conflict. Tensions are likely to increase between Russia and neighbouring NATO member countries that would likely involve the United States, due to alliance security commitments. Additionally, the conflict in Ukraine will have broader ramifications for future cooperation on critical issues like arms control, cybersecurity, nuclear non-proliferation, energy security, counterterrorism, and political solutions in Syria, Libya, and elsewhere.
After the Soviet military aggression by the Soviet government at the beginning of 1918, Ukraine declared its full independence from the Russian Republic on 22 January 1918, as the Ukrainian People’s Republic which existed from 1917 to 1922. Throughout 2021 and 2022, Russian military build-up on the border of Ukraine has escalated tensions between the two countries and strained bilateral relations, with the United States sending a strong message that invasion would be met with dire consequences for Russia’s economy.
In late February by air, land, and sea, Russia has launched a devastating attack on Ukraine, a European democracy of 44 million people. For months President Vladimir Putin had denied he would invade his neighbour, but then he tore up a peace deal, sending forces across borders in Ukraine’s north, east and south. Airports and military headquarters were hit first, near cities across Ukraine, including the main Boryspil international airport in Kyiv. Then tanks and troops rolled into Ukraine in the north-east, near Kharkiv, a city of 1.4 million people: in the east near Luhansk, from neighbouring Belarus in the north and Crimea in the south. Para troops seized a key airbase just outside Kyiv and Russian troops landed in Ukraine’s big port cities of Odesa and Mariupol too. President Putin flagrantly violated the Minsk peace agreements by recognising the supposed independence of the so-called “People’s Republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine. In a single inflammatory speech, he denied that Ukraine had any “tradition of genuine statehood”, claimed that it posed a “direct threat to the security of Russia”, and hurled numerous other false accusations and aspersions.
We must now brace ourselves for the next possible stages of Putin’s plan: the violent subversion of areas of eastern Ukraine by Russian operatives and their hirelings, followed by a general offensive by the nearly 200,000 Russian troops gathered on the frontiers, at peak readiness to attack. If the worst happens, then a European nation of 44 million men, women and children would become the target of a full-scale war of aggression, waged without a shred of justification, for the absurd and even mystical reasons that Putin described last night. Unless the situation changes, the best efforts of the United States, of this country, France, Germany, and other allies to avoid conflict through patient diplomacy may be in vain. From the beginning, we have all tried our utmost, we’ve all tried, to find a peaceful way through this crisis. They held over three hours of frank discussions with the Russian defence minister, General Shoigu, and the chief of staff, General Gerasimov, demonstrating how seriously we take Russia’s security concerns, how much we respect her history, and how hard we are prepared to work to ensure peaceful co-existence. Britain has done everything possible to help Ukraine to prepare for another onslaught, training 22,000 soldiers, supplying 2,000 anti-tank missiles, and providing £100 million for economic reform and energy independence, and we will now guarantee up to $500 million of Development Bank financing. Ahead of what the British government has declared to be a Russian invasion of Ukraine, parliament was sounding the alarm about the potential impact on Britain and calling for the UK to strike back in response to any cyber-attacks. Speaking in the House of Commons yesterday Liberal Democrat MP, Jamie Stone, said: “We should be clear; if Russia invades Ukraine, massive sanctions will rightly be placed on Russia, and if that happens, we can expect a salvo of cyber-attacks on the United Kingdom.” He asked the secretary of state for defence, Ben Wallace, for reassurance about the UK’s security “and that what is good for the goose is good for the gander, and that if necessary, we could use cyber warfare to give as good as we get back to Russia.”
The United Kingdom has adopted a much more secret approach to its offensive cyber activities than allies, including the United States which has pledged itself to a doctrine of “persistent engagement”. The only case study that the government has ever spoken of about Britain’s offensive actions references a campaign to tackle Islamic State militants and their online propaganda. But this is a much narrower example than the range of “responsible offensive activity” described in the National Cyber Strategy.
The Palace of Westminster, which contains the House of Commons and the House of Lords, in central London. The only technical information available about how these activities are conducted is in the law describing them. In the code of practice for Equipment Interference, as offensive hacking activities are officially known, operations require a warrant that constrains the technical aspects of the interference to what is “necessary and proportionate” as signed off by a senior judge. These operations have to avoid causing collateral damage to individuals not covered by the warrant, something which would prevent the UK from attacking civilian infrastructure, although dual-use infrastructure with both civilian and military applications could potentially be considered a necessary and proportionate target depending on the action.
“Comments like this highlight how we should be having a public debate about how the government sees offensive cyber, under what conditions it will be used, and what the legal and ethical frameworks are that will guide the use of offensive cyber,” he added.
Vladimir Putin has threatened an unspecific “military-technical response” to what he described as “the aggressive line of our Western colleagues,” regarding Ukraine, and pledged to “react harshly to unfriendly steps”.
Mr McColl added: “In the event of an invasion, Russia is going to be very focused on supporting the operational and tactical objectives of the invasion, the majority of Russia’s cyber capabilities will be tasked with that.”
But he noted warnings in the financial services industry and cautioned that the impact of sanctions – if they changed Russia’s dependence on that industry – could mean it was less of a risk to attack. Stuart McKenzie, from cyber security company Mandiant, added: “Russia has constituted a long-standing cyber threat to the UK through means of espionage, information operations and even disruptive cyber-attacks. “Modern warfare will see cyber used as an asymmetric tool to project power far beyond borders and the traditional battlefield. As the situation escalates, it’s likely that serious cyber incidents will not affect Ukraine alone,” he added. “Beyond the threat of disruptive or cyber intrusions, we should also be cognisant of the threat of propaganda or influence operations, a regular feature of Russian cyber activity. “These are increasingly used to distract, spread, or falsely leak information which is designed to change the narrative or influence opinion and could look to drive a wedge between UK, EU, NATO and the US and cause internal friction rather than a collective response.”

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