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Practical Techie: Ukraine sets the stage for future virtual warfare scenarios

As the conflict in Ukraine drags on, the air is not only filled with the stench of dead bodies, explosives, and rubble but also the toxic fumes of propaganda and false narratives from all sides.

In our days, wars and military interventions have generated a virtual style of confrontation never seen in previous armed conflicts: Cyberwar.

SHADOWS — Although the feared cyber apocalypse in Ukraine has not occurred a month after its onset, what occurs in the digital cloud is a glimpse into the virtual battlefields of the future. As expected, all is happening in the shadows, a reason why the mainstream media or most of us common folk are never fully aware of its scope.

“In the heat of war, it’s harder to track who is conducting what attack on whom, especially when it is advantageous to both victim and perpetrator to keep the details concealed.” according to Check Point Research. The contours of digital confrontation have all the ingredients of the underground, including espionage, sabotage, covert action and counterintelligence, deception, and disinformation.  

FORESHADOWS — Strange events were already occurring before the military invasion. Ukrainian banks suffered major denial-of-service attacks. Western authorities swiftly attributed the attacks to Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate. In reaction, Ukraine put together a crowdsourced cyberwafare army in anticipation of things to come. Propaganda says it is 400,000 strong from all over the world.

Also, the day the Russian invasion started, ViaSat, a provider of high-speed satellite broadband services to 55 countries suffered an outage. Sabotage was suspected because Ukrainian police and military use the array of tampered satellites.  

Soon after, Ukraine counter-attacked by publishing a list of all the Russian military units surrounding the country and their geolocations. Then, two cyberattacks breached a key Ukrainian communications government network. The virtual battles went deeper into the shadows as the ground war intensified, away even from the regular news cycles.

ANONYMOUS — Cyberwars have many actors and strange bedfellows. The dark Anonymous collective openly declared cyber warfare against Russia soon after the bank hacks. It hit and stole a trove of data from a German subsidiary of Rosneft, a major Russian state-owned oil firm. The hacker group also said it was responsible for disabling the websites of the Russia Today TV channel in English and Russian. In addition, indicated that it attacked “several” websites of the Russian government.

Anonymous also promised attacks against politicians such as Republican US congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene because she posted a message on Facebook calling on the Ukrainians to cease a futile fight against Russia.

SOCIAL MEDIA — In less than 48 hours after the ground war, the social networks were filled with hundreds of photos and videos showing the Russian Intervention’s drama. One of the first viral images was a Russian war tank smashing a car in the street with a driver inside. Soon the Internet filled with moments of terror and anguish by civilians caught in the war conflict. One is of a young fellow sadly playing the piano amid the gore, or another of doctors desperately trying to save a little girl wounded by the bombings. Both videos had over a million instant views, contributing to the overt and covert wave of influencing visuals.  

One of much impact was when TV producer Marina Ovsyannikova jumped behind the Russian “Channel One” news anchor with a handwritten signed denouncing the invasion. “Don’t believe this propaganda,” the sign read. She is of Ukrainian descent.

HUSH — Suppressing unwanted information is a must in any cyber warfare strategy. Russia does not allow coverage of the events from the Ukrainian side of the conflict and prohibits using such terms as “war” or “invasion” in its newscasts. President Vladimir Putin personally has spread false narratives about biochemical labs in Ukraine and government run by “neo Nazis.”

Internal cyber attacks prompted the Kremlin to clamp down even further on dissent to avoid internal media sabotage. In one such incident, a televised speech on the network Rossiya-24 suddenly went off the air when Putin began praising his soldier’s heroism in Ukraine. 

USA OF A — Conspiracy theories on Ukraine also surfaced among right-wing groups in the US cybermedia. The conspiracy narratives are picked up from websites like Q-Anon, sent to social media, showcased by Fox newscast, and then looped back to the Internet. That is a crowdsourced method used frequently by right-wing propagandists on political themes. On the flipside, powerful American TV news channels such as CNN have mainly focused on the suffering of the Ukrainian people without much attention to the silent duress of innocent Russian citizens hit hard by the economic sanctions imposed on their country. Cyberwarfare carries a steep learning curve, and everyone is on a route because there is no script to follow and probably will never be one.

Author Details
Author Rafael Matos is a veteran journalist, a professor of digital narratives and university mentor. He may be contacted at cccrafael@gmail.com.

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