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The Cyber Defense Review

Stabilizing the Borderland: Confronting IO, EW and Cyber in Ukraine

By Dr. Aaron F. Brantly | December 07, 2017

Since 2013 Ukraine has been struggling to maintain its sovereignty in the face of external and internal pressures. Conflict in the eastern portions of Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea placed enormous strain on the capacity of Ukraine to build a stable government and reorient itself towards Europe in the wake of rampant corruption under the previous government of President Viktor Yanukovych. As its very name, Ukrayina, implies it is a country that resides on the border of Europe to the West and Russia to the East, yet it is also a case study in the modern way of war. In June of 2017, four members of the Army Cyber Institute at West Point and the U.S. Army Cyber Center of Excellence at Fort Gordon traveled to Ukraine to assess the usage of cyber, electronic warfare (EW), and information operations (IO). Our report is based on interviews with officials from each agency within Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, the security services, armed forces, soldiers from both regular and volunteer battalions who fought on the front lines, as well the leadership of the defense industrial base, academics in its top universities, cyber corporate leaders, and non-governmental organizations. The report provides a detailed and robust look at the challenges Ukraine has faced, the perceptions of those involved in its security, defense, and education, and provides recommendations for future engagements. Our mission was to look beyond the headlines, to delve into the details, and give an unvarnished look at the utilization of cyber, EW, and IO in a hybrid conflict.

Ukraine provides a unique glimpse into the future of warfare. Faced with military, political, economic, and societal vulnerabilities, the tactics of Ukraine’s Russian and Russian backed rebel adversaries highlights the challenges of developing a potent modern fighting force. Ravaged by years of neglect, government corruption, political infighting amongst governmental agencies, and pervasive foreign intelligence penetration, Ukraine’s armed forces and security services have met the most significant challenge the nation has faced in its short history head on and held the line. The conflict has been bloody, technically complex, and psychologically draining, yet despite the challenges faced, Ukraine in coordination with NATO, European Union (EU), United States (US) and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) assistance has made substantial progress in building the necessary institutions, organizational capacities, human and technical capital. More targeted assistance will be needed in the coming years to bulwark Ukraine against Russian aggression and to create a strong and stable ally.

The conflict in Ukraine is hybrid in form and function. Hybrid war is not total war in a Clausewitzian sense, yet it is pervasive and affects nearly every aspect of Ukrainian society. Ukraine is a nation under siege by a more powerful adversary who allocates resources only in sufficient volume to maintain its siege. To achieve continued conflict at the lowest cost, Ukraine’s adversaries make substantial use of cyber, EW, and IO to achieve, tactical, operational, and strategic advantages. While alone these tools are insufficient to maintain the conflict, they likely reduce its costs and challenge the already financially and organizationally weak Ukrainian security services and armed forces.

It is incumbent upon leaders within the U.S. Army to continually assess and learn from conflict. By examining the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats to the functioning of militaries facing adversaries who incorporate cyber, EW, and IO in combined arms and multi-domain battle environments, we hope to provide Army leaders with a more robust picture of the future of warfare. Understanding the changing character of warfare allows Army leadership to prepare for conflicts left of boom, to adapt training and resources, tactics and strategy to avoid or minimize the challenges faced by others.

The conflict in Ukraine is unlikely to be resolved in the near term, and the utilization of cyber, EW, and IO will likely evolve in the coming months and years. The conflict in Ukraine will remain relevant to the study of the ways and means of war for the foreseeable future.

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