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In Ukraine, a new approach to modern conflict is emerging

People charge their phones on central square in Kherson, Ukraine
Associated Press/Efrem Lukatsky
People charge their phones, try to connect to the internet and make phone calls on central square in Kherson, Ukraine, on Nov. 17. Russian airstrikes targeted Ukraine’s energy facilities again Thursday as the first snow of the season fell in Kyiv, a harbinger of the hardship to come if Moscow’s missiles continue to take out power and gas plants as winter descends.

I recently participated in a series of high-level conversations about how we leverage technology for strategic advantage in the face of technology-enabled threats. The gatherings, hosted by the Munich Security Conference, follows a similar talk held in Munich in February, on the eve of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. These two conversations covered similar issues and were held less than a year apart, but the tenor and substance was dramatically different. That is because the war in Ukraine is changing how the world is responding to these threats — and Ukraine’s remarkable resilience has been both inspiring and instructive.

In February, as we met in Munich, Russian troops were massing on Ukraine’s borders. At the time, many predicted devastating Russian cyberattacks on Ukraine’s critical infrastructure, attacks that would throw Ukraine into turmoil and accelerate what many anticipated would be their defeat. In the months since, the world has witnessed in horror Putin’s brutal invasion. But we’ve also witnessed how Ukraine has defied the skeptics, successfully defending against cyber-attacks to its critical infrastructure and making masterful use of technology in a broader way to gain the initiative.

A new approach to modern conflict is emerging along with a new way for how the transatlantic community better positions itself to leverage its technology advantage to overcome shared challenges. 

Even before the Russian invasion, technology companies had worked closely with the Ukrainian government to maintain and secure the country’s digital infrastructure. After Russia invaded, Ukrainians used smartphones and a variety of apps to share with the world — daily — the story of what was happening on the ground. They used secure communications to open supply lines and coordinate resistance to Russian efforts. Ukrainian volunteers even developed a smartphone app that allows citizens to report on the location of Russian attacks, tanks, missiles, and drones.

For Ukraine, broad access to these off-the-shelf technologies has proven crucial, allowing Ukrainians to knock the Russians off balance and fight the larger aggressor in a conflict that Putin thought would last days.

Armed with smartphones and internet access, Ukrainian civilians and NGOs have documented and shared Russian war crimes and troop positions, sometimes in real time.

Even as Kyiv was under siege, President Zelensky was able to rally his nation and galvanize the world each night with regular video messages.

Software engineers, app developers, and other tech workers in Kyiv are still going to work, fueling the country’s innovation sector. And drones, GPS devices, and other consumer products that empower secure communications have supplemented the Ukrainian arsenal.

These tools, and the ecosystem within which they are being used, represent a dynamic new addition to the old ways of doing things, and we need to think strategically about what success in this new environment looks like. More of the same is not a recipe for success. It would be a failure of creativity for us not to adapt to the changing circumstances. To build truly secure and resilient systems, we can’t just rely on government or on private sector solutions, we need both to work together.

We need to harness the expertise of the private sector and leverage our nation’s top technology leaders to out-innovate our adversaries. But this only works when all technology users — government, enterprise, and consumer — can trust that their devices, their apps, and the services they use are safe and reliable, that their data is secure, and their privacy protected.

It also means continuing to invest in the technologies that enable trust, such as cybersecurity and privacy solutions. For example, in response to the Ukraine war, companies have expanded their use of technology to protect the cloud and enable more secure communications. This has been a gamechanger for millions of Ukrainians.  

For government, the tasks are simple. We must continue to lead the world on technological innovation and build the workforce of tomorrow. At the same time, we need security baked into both products and the policymaking process. This means evaluating the security, privacy and other impacts of new policy proposals, just like policymakers perform a budgetary impact assessment before passing legislation and local leaders do an environmental impact assessment before building a new project. This “trust impact” assessment can help improve outcomes and reduce the chances that policymakers will inadvertently impede our ability to harness future technologies or, worse yet, actively make devices and systems less secure, less reliable, or less resilient. 

During the Second World War, Allied forces used the BBC to communicate with the French Resistance and citizens planted victory gardens or collected scrap metal for the war effort. Today, the hidden radio and coded messages have been displaced by downloadable apps that everyone can use. Victory gardens have been replaced with citizen intelligence networks providing critical information via their smartphones or crowdsourcing for gear.  

Enabling this kind of whole-of-population effort requires ingenuity and innovation from all sectors of society. Industry, government, and every day citizens have an important role to play.

Now is not a time for a failure of creativity.

Adm. Michael Rogers, USN (ret), served simultaneously as commander of U.S. Cyber Command and director of the National Security Agency from 2014-2018.

Tags apps civilians Commercial drones Critical infrastructure protection Cyberattacks on Ukraine Data security digital infrastructure Military strategy Russian cyberattacks Russian invasion of Ukraine Russian war crimes Russian war in Ukraine Smartphones Social media Technology Ukrainian resistance Ukrainian victory Vladimir Putin Volodymyr Zelensky

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