Russians open cyber front in Crimea

Russia is using cyberspace operations to support military incursion into Ukraine. Credit: Shutterstock


Janes Defense

Key Points

  • Russia will use cyberspace operations at the strategic and tactical level in support of its military incursion into Ukraine
  • Cyberspace operations will remain disruptive (as opposed to destructive) at the strategic level

Russia’s incursion into Ukraine’s Crimea places a spotlight once again on Russia’s employment of cyberspace operations in support of geostrategic objectives and tactical military operations in its near-abroad.

The Associated Press reported on 3 March that Russia’s internet monitoring agency blocked 13 internet sites linked to the Ukrainian protest movement, including that of the largest pro-Ukrainian demonstration site. On 28 February Ukrainian telecom provider Ukrtelecom JSC reported on its website that it had lost its technical ability to provide a link between the Crimean peninsula and the rest of Ukraine due to physical damage to fibre-optic trunk cables, significantly affecting fixed telephony, internet, and mobile services ( While this latter outage has not been attributed to any official Russian entity, it does follow a historical trend of Russia employing integrated cyberspace operations as part of its recent strategic and military actions.

Estonia experienced several weeks of co-ordinated strategic cyber attacks against its financial and sociopolitical institutions in 2007. Although the origin of these attacks cannot be definitively attributed to Russia, it is widely believed that Moscow was behind the attacks in response to perceived anti-Russian policies.

In July and August 2008 substantial distributed denial-of-services attacks occurred against Georgian websites, rendering most Georgian governmental websites inoperative. These attacks coincided with the movement of Russian troops into South Ossetia on 9 August 2008 in response to Georgian military operations launched a day earlier.

Most recently, in August 2013, RIA Novisti reported that the Russian military had decided to create a separate branch focused on cyber warfare and the Russian Foundation for Advanced Military Research listed cyber warfare as one of three main areas of research.

Consequently, current cyberspace activities in Ukraine, coupled with analysis of past Russian incursions and current tactical focus, suggest that Russia will continue to use cyberspace operations in an integrated fashion with other strategic and tactical capabilities to maintain influence in its near-abroad.

IHS Jane’s believes that cyberspace operations will remain disruptive in Ukraine and not destructive at the strategic level. In other words, it is unlikely Russia will employ cyberspace capabilities to destroy key critical infrastructure (such as power grids or transportation systems) since this would cross a line, indicating significant escalation and potentially prompting an international response.

Tactical use of cyberspace operations, on the other hand, can be expected to degrade, disrupt, and deny the Ukrainian military use of its command-and-control nodes and thus adversely affect Ukrainian military decision-making.