Ukraine War Shows Why Digital Giants Will Play A Growing Role In Global Security – The Russo-Ukrainian War is the world’s first digital conflict with profound implications for U.S. national security and the future of conflict. While Russia’s cyber offensive at the outset of hostilities was expected, what came as a surprise was Ukraine’s ability to blunt Moscow’s attacks. This was the result to a significant degree of early support provided to Ukraine by U.S. digital giants such as Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Microsoft.
U.S. IT companies are exploiting their dominance in digital communications to mine Russian cell phone communications and publicly available apps for intelligence and targeting purposes. The extensive use of drones by both sides is enabled by sophisticated, often commercial, information systems for navigation, targeting, and intelligence collection. Private space-based communications are critical to Ukraine’s ability to defend itself. If there is a single lesson to be gleaned from almost a year of war it is that U.S. commercial IT firms will play a growing role in global security.
Russia began its so-called special operation with a massive cyberattack on Ukraine’s civil, military, and commercial infrastructure. This came as no surprise to most defense experts and cyber specialists. The Russian cyber campaign against Ukraine had been ongoing since at least the seizure of Crimea in 2014.
The big surprise was the relative lack of effectiveness of Russia’s cyber offensive. Russian cyber operations appear to have had modest (if that) impacts on Ukraine’s ability to communicate, conduct government and military operations, or operate critical infrastructure. Instead, the Ukrainian government, economy, infrastructure, and military have seemed to operate relatively unimpeded by Russian cyber operations, forcing Moscow to rely more on kinetic attacks.
An important reason why Ukraine was able to blunt the impacts of Russian cyberattacks was the support provided by U.S. private digital companies such as AWS and Microsoft. Almost from the first day of the Russian invasion, AWS stepped in to help secure the Ukrainian government’s critical information. Essential data and programs, including tax information, property and bank records, and government personnel information, were downloaded onto suitcase-sized, solid-state computer storage units, using a capability called Snowball Edge, that were removed from the reach of Russian weapons. Then the data was transferred into Amazon’s cloud computing system. Snowball Edge is a mobile, flexible storage/compute capability that will be of interest to the U.S. military as it seeks to extend the reach of the Joint All-Domain Command and Control system down to the tactical edge.
The critical role played by AWS was recently acknowledged by Ukraine’s government. Kyiv awarded AWS the Ukraine peace prize for its support of Ukraine in the current conflict. According to Ukraine’s vice prime minister and digital transformation minister, Mykhailo Fedorov, “Amazon AWS literally saved our digital infrastructure.”
AWS continues to support Ukraine, expanding the range of government and private economic records it is securing. The company has pledged an additional $75 million dollars to Ukraine’s defense.
Microsoft, too, is providing critical cyber defense capabilities to Ukraine. Like AWS, Microsoft has offered to provide secure storage for Ukraine’s data on its clouds. It also is providing ongoing threat detection and analysis that helps deny Russian hackers critical information on Ukrainian defenses, supply lines, and military plans. The company has already given free technical support valued at $400 million. Another $100 million will be spent in 2023.
Google is another tech giant that has come to Ukraine’s defense. Since the war began, the company has sought to neutralize Russian influence operations and has provided continuous cyber incident response and threat tracking.
Taken as a whole, Ukraine has demonstrated a remarkable resilience to Russian cyberattacks, digital intelligence collection, and influence operations. As one Western analyst observed:
“Ukraine has shown formidable defensive strength and resilience on the physical battlefield, and the same is true in cyberspace. Kyiv’s ability to harness the experience of years of Russian cyberattacks, combined with strong support from Western governments and—crucially—technology companies has allowed Ukraine to deploy cyber defenses at a scale and depth never seen before.”
Western cyber skills have also been employed to support Ukraine’s offensive operations. There have been widespread reports that Ukraine’s military has exploited Russian soldiers’ extensive cell phone use both for intelligence purposes and targeting. The recent Ukrainian strike on a Russian military staging area that reportedly caused significant casualties was facilitated by localized emissions from multiple private cell phones. A number of Russian generals are also said to have been killed when their positions were pinpointed as the result of their use of unsecured commercial cell phones. Ukraine did not shut down its cell phone networks or destroy cell phone repeaters precisely in the hope that Russian forces would use their personal communication devices, thereby creating an exploitable vulnerability.
When Russian commanders and soldiers employed commercial communications devices, applications, and networks they created an unprecedented intelligence collection opportunity. A key to Ukraine’s ability to exploit this opportunity has been the help from U.S. companies that specialize in mining such information.
SpaceX is a fourth U.S. tech giant that is helping to defend Ukraine. Russian hackers have sought to bring down the commercial satellite networks on which Ukraine relies. SpaceX has continued to provide access to its Starlink system despite Russian threats. The company provided tens of thousands of Starlink antennas to enable Ukraine to maintain a domestic and international communications system.
The Ukraine conflict has demonstrated that it is possible to defend against even a potent cyber adversary. The key is to rely on the ever-increasing capabilities of the private sector. In future high-end conflicts, private IT companies such as AWS, Microsoft, and Google will play a key role. The U.S. national security establishment needs to do a better job nurturing and protecting the digital titans that have been so central to creating the modern global economy and which will be major players in global security.
Dr. Daniel Goure is Senior Vice President of the Lexington Institute, a nonprofit public-policy research organization headquartered in Arlington, Virginia. He is involved in a wide range of issues as part of the institute’s national security program.