This paper examines the military effectiveness of Russia’s wartime cyber operations in Ukraine, the reasons why these operations have not had greater strategic impact, and the lessons applicable to other countries’ military cyber efforts. It builds on previous analyses by taking a more systematic and detailed approach that incorporates a wider range of publicly available data.
A major purpose of this paper is to help bridge the divide between cyber-specific and general military analysis of the Russia-Ukraine war. Most analysis of Russian cyber operations in Ukraine has been produced by cyber specialists writing for their own field, with limited integration of non-cyber military sources and concepts. Conversely, leading accounts of the war as a whole include virtually no mention of cyber operations. To begin filling the gap, this paper places Russian cyber operations in Ukraine within the larger frame of Moscow’s military objectives, campaigns, and kinetic activities. Its key points:
- Russian cyber “fires” (disruptive or destructive attacks) may have contributed modestly to Moscow’s initial invasion, but since then they have inflicted negligible damage on Ukrainian targets. Traditional jamming gave Russian forces a tactical edge in the battle for Kyiv, and it is plausible—though unconfirmed—that the cyber disruption of Viasat modems further degraded Ukrainian front-line communications. Meanwhile, Russia’s large opening salvo of data deletion attacks may have amplified the general atmosphere of chaos in Ukraine, although the victim organizations reportedly suffered only limited real-world disruptions. But within the first several weeks of the war, Russian cyber fires plummeted in number, impact, and novelty. Cyber fires, although still very high relative to prewar baselines, have barely registered on the grand scale of Moscow’s military ambitions and high-intensity combat operations in Ukraine.
- Cyber fires have neither added meaningfully to Russia’s kinetic firepower nor performed special functions distinct from those of kinetic weapons. Rather than serving in a niche role, many Russian cyber fires have targeted the same categories of Ukrainian systems also prosecuted by kinetic weapons, such as communications, electricity, and transportation infrastructure. For almost all these target categories, kinetic fires seem to have caused multiple orders of magnitude more damage. While cyber fires potentially offer unique benefits in certain circumstances, these benefits have not been realized in Russia’s war against Ukraine. Moscow’s military strategists quickly discarded any aim of reducing physical or collateral damage or creating reversible effects in Ukraine, and Russia has gained little deniability or geographic reach from cyber operations. Likewise, Russian cyber fires have not achieved any systemic effects, and they have arguably been less cost-effective—or at least more capacity-constrained—than kinetic fires.