Ukraine Successfully Defends Its Cyberspace While Russia Leans Heavily on Guns, Bombs

Bree Fowler Senior Writer
Bree Fowler writes about cybersecurity and digital privacy. Before joining CNET she reported for The Associated Press and Consumer Reports. A Michigan native, she's a long-suffering Detroit sports fan, world traveler, two star marathoner and champion baker of over-the-top birthday cakes and all-things sourdough.
Expertise Cybersecurity, Digital Privacy, IoT, Consumer Tech, Running and Fitness Tech, Smartphones, Wearables
Bree Fowler
2 min read
An image of a lock and broken glass against a Russian flag.

Ukraine still must keep its guard up, experts say.


What's happening

Russia's conventional war against Ukraine drags on, but the early cyberwar predicted by some experts hasn't materialized.

Why it matters

A massive cyberattack could still cripple Ukraine and its allies.

Ukraine has largely prevented Russia from disrupting its cyber activities since the war began three months ago, security experts say, though the country remains at risk of future cyberattacks as the conventional war rages on.

Analysts had warned that cyberwarfare would be among Russia's preferred tactics ahead of its Feb. 24 invasion. Among the potential targets: Ukraine's power grid and critical infrastructure. And such attacks could target allies and other countries too, they'd said.

Cyber Armageddon, however, hasn't been unleashed, Dimitri Alperovitch, co-founder and former chief technology officer of security company CrowdStrike, told the RSA Conference in San Francisco on Tuesday. 

"Of course, one of the big questions people have been asking since day one of the war is 'Where's the cyberwar?'" Alperovitch said.

The ongoing war in Ukraine and the looming possibility of a global cyberwar were among the top topics at this week's high-profile security conference. The annual event, back in person after two years of pandemic-prompted virtual gatherings, brought together thousands of cybersecurity professionals from around the world.

Alperovitch, who now leads the nonprofit Silverado Policy Accelerator, said forecasts that cyber would be a critical part of Russia's strategy may have been "unnecessarily elevated" given Russia's huge military and conventional weapons.

"When you have bombs, when you have artillery, when you have missiles, you're going to prefer to use those once you're in an actual war rather than cyber," Alperovitch said during a keynote address at RSA. Cyberattacks can have a "very fleeting effect," he said.

Still, cyberattacks have been deployed, including Russian-launched data-wiping malware that crippled the Ukrainian military's ability to communicate during the first days of the invasion.

Russia-launched cyberattacks are nothing new for Ukraine. 

The NotPetya attack, attributed to Russia, crippled computers across Ukraine in 2017. The malware, which also spread to unintended targets far outside Ukraine, locked up files in a manner similar to ransomware. When experts took a closer look, however, they realized that its true purpose was to destroy data rather than make money.

Ukraine has learned from that experience, Alperovitch said, noting that the country has data backups ready to go so that it can rebuild quickly if it's hit. 

Sandra Joyce, head of intelligence operations for the cybersecurity company Mandiant, said Tuesday that the Ukrainians have also found success online by controlling information coming out of war zones and uploading recordings taken by Russian soldiers and drones. At the same time, they've managed to keep their networks up through bombardments and blackout conditions. 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has also humanized the plight of his country's people, recording internet-savvy videos that are posted to social media to win worldwide support.

"The type of resilience that the Ukrainian defenders are showing right now in the cyber domain is incredible," Joyce said. "And it's something, from our position at Mandiant, that we have never seen before."