This brief is a part of The Ukraine Crisis: Cause and Course of the Conflict
After much speculation, the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, ordered
his troops to launch a “special military operation” against Ukraine on 24 February 2022. Subsequently, the Russian defence forces attacked Ukraine from the north, east, and south and made rapid advances. They have now surrounded the capital Kyiv, and its fall appears imminent. In response, Europe and the United States (US), averse to getting bogged down in a military effort against Russia, for fears of escalation
, have imposed severe sanctions
on Putin, his officials, and Russian financial, energy, and technology sectors. However, those have not deterred the tempo of Russian military operations on the ground.
As the first major inter-state conflict of the 21st
century, Russia-Ukraine hostilities offer important lessons for India’s national security management related to hybrid warfare, technology sanctions, and alliances.
The Ukraine conflict has panned out on not-so-unfamiliar fronts of cyber and disinformation. It points to how future battles will unfold across the continuums of land, air, sea, cyber, and information. Cyber warfare and disinformation campaigns played a crucial role in preparing the ground for Russian conventional military operations.
Even before its forces invaded, Russian state-sponsored hackers targeted Ukraine through several cyberattacks. These attacks aimed
at sowing panic, obstructing communications, and demoralising Ukrainians—key objectives of hybrid warfare strategy, practiced and perfected by Russia since the cyberattacks on Estonia in 2007. On 15 February 2022, the Ukrainian officials claimed
that the country was the target of the largest cyberattack in its history against government ministries and banks, disrupting their service for a few hours. Simultaneously, cybersecurity researchers noted that a data-wiping malware known as HermeticWiper
was targeting organisations in Ukraine.
Cyber warfare and disinformation campaigns played a crucial role in preparing the ground for Russian conventional military operations.
Accompanying these penetrating cyberattacks are Russian disinformation campaigns, which have played a prominent role in spreading confusion about the actual ground situation. For example, days before invading, Russia claimed
that Ukraine was committing genocide in the separatist Donbas region by shelling the Russian-speaking population. It also alleged that Ukraine was planning an attack on Russia. Just the opposite, the US accused
Russia of inventing a pretext to invade Ukraine by producing a fake video that depicted civilian casualties in Donbas. Merely a week before the incursion, Russia claimed
that it was withdrawing troops, tanks, and other armoured vehicles from areas near Ukraine’s border—a claim debunked
by the US officials. Such competing narratives dominated the incessant fast-paced online coverage
of the conflict that created the ‘fog of war,’ i.e., uncertainties around the military operations, giving advantage to Russian forces. As Russian operations intensify in and around capital Kyiv, these disinformation tactics will amplify further.
India’s national security establishment should note how the hybrid warfare components of cyber and disinformation capabilities complement the kinetic warfare to gain battlefield supremacy. In future conflicts, conventional capabilities will remain relevant (dominated by land forces
), but even more relevant will be the information warfare capabilities centred on cyberattacks, psychological operations, and disinformation campaigns. This is particularly true for social media platforms, where the tool of ‘citizen journalists’ can be usurped to plant fake content.
Russia claimed that Ukraine was committing genocide in the separatist Donbas region by shelling the Russian-speaking population.
As the target of China-based hackers’ persistent cyberattacks on critical infrastructure and Pakistan-backed anti-India disinformation campaigns, India should harden its cyber defences and adopt an offensive cyber posture. Particularly on disinformation, India will need to build institutional and community resilience. This will allow it to better withstand the propaganda campaigns and deny the adversary an opportunity to exploit any gap in our polity and society. India has done better in hardening cyber defences
and has improved on offensive cyber operations
, but it needs to get its act together
on countering propaganda.
Tech sanctions and economic coercion
Another element of hybrid warfare that has come to the fore in this conflict is sanctions and economic coercion. Sanctions as a tool of statecraft are pretty overused
. However, the imposition of the latest American sanctions
will have a salient impact in severing Russia’s access to America’s advanced technologies. Russia is heavily dependent on the American semi-conductor industry for its booming domestic tech sector, industrial manufacturing, and aerospace sector. And as the US President Joe Biden said
, American sanctions will degrade Russia’s “ability to compete economically” and be “a major hit to Putin’s long-term strategic ambitions.” Although Russia is collaborating
with China for advanced technologies, that collaboration is unlikely to get immediate traction in semi-conductors as Chinese industry tackles
supply chain bottlenecks.
Russia is heavily dependent on the American semi-conductor industry for its booming domestic tech sector, industrial manufacturing, and aerospace sector.
These developments underline the importance of technology in determining national security policy. Therefore, access to technologies will play a critical role, particularly during a conflict situation. The US tech sanctions are capitalising on its advanced tech sector and its dominance in global supply chains. India may not have a similar tech infrastructure prowess and dominance, but it has a huge financially lucrative market and a thriving start-up base. These can be used as a lever for inhibiting or deterring adversary’s military actions. India’s regular banning
of the Chinese apps
and curtailing Chinese investments
in the tech sector since the June 2020 Galwan Valley clash are steps in that direction. Learning from its experience and Ukraine conflict, India needs to consider the role of tech sanctions and their impact on tech supply chains in determining the course of its security policy and deterring its adversaries.
Finally, the Ukraine conflict underscores the importance of ‘self-help.’ Despite repeated US declarations of support
to Ukraine’s ‘sovereignty and territorial integrity,’ the stark reality is that today Ukraine has been left to fend off for itself. Even though the US and some North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members have now provided additional military assistance
, none of them is willing to get directly involved in the conflict. This will be the reality of future conflicts: A general weariness to get dragged in wars abroad will dictate the state’s security policy. Only when core interests are at stake will they get involved. As Dr. Tara Kartha argues
, without “ironclad guarantees and a strong self-interest, no one is likely to come to your aid.”
Learning from its experience and Ukraine conflict, India needs to consider the role of tech sanctions and their impact on tech supply chains in determining the course of its security policy and deterring its adversaries.
Therefore, India will have to look after for itself in such an environment. Moreover, with no membership of a formal security alliance and an unlikely prospect that it will ever become one, there will always be limits to India’s foreign security partnerships and defence cooperation. Therefore, New Delhi will have to chart out sooner or later a path based on self-reliance to protect and advance its security interests.
The Ukraine conflict has only coalesced the recent trends seen in the tech and national security domain. At this point, it is unclear how the hostilities will eventuate, but its impact in shaping the contours of major power relations will be significant. The implications of the ensuing fractious and polarised global order will be felt for years to come, particularly in the domain of national security policy.
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