On Saturday, February 26, while Russian troops bombarded Ukraine’s second-largest city Kharkiv, the country’s vice prime minister and minister of digital transformation Mykhailo Fedorov tweeted in cryptocurrency. described this crypto crowdfunding appeal as “unprecedented”, pointing out that Ukraine’s online appeal for direct donations was the first of its kind. Within approximately 24 hours, the Ukrainian government had raised almost $8 million in cryptocurrencies from 11,500 donations.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine is the biggest military assault on a European state since World War II. While Ukrainian forces and civilians have been putting up a determined resistance to Russian troops on the ground, a battle has also been underway on another front: the internet.
Disruptions and outages
Since Russia began what president Vladimir Putin described as “a special military operation” in Ukraine on February 24, there have been fears of attacks on Ukraine’s telecommunication system. These fears were compounded by internet outages across the country from February 24 onwards, as reported by the and internet monitoring group .
While the situation has improved after entrepreneur Elon Musk’s company SpaceX activated its satellite broadband service in Ukraine after Fedorov , has reported continued disruptions in other internet service providers in Ukraine.
Musk has said “” in a tweet to Fedorov.
Attacking a cyberpower
While the internet is playing a critically important role in the dissemination of information from and within Ukraine, it’s also being used by hackers to attack digital assets. Fedorov that his government is developing an “IT army” to fight Russia on the cyber front and has reported that many “cyber volunteers” have joined the effort to ramp up Ukraine’s online efforts against Russia.
International hackers’ group tweeted a video with a warning to Putin and claims to have brought down several as part of its efforts to support the Ukrainian resistance.
Russia has the reputation of being one of the most aggressive and skilled cyberpowers in the world. In the recent past, the country’s foreign intelligence service for a hack that compromised nine federal agencies and hundreds of private sector companies in the United States of America.
Launching a cyber attack is a relatively inexpensive effort with few consequences for the attacker. In contrast, defending against cyber attacks requires a coordinated effort by various agencies and lapses can result in crippling essential infrastructure like government websites, banking services, power grid supplies, and coordination of essential and military personnel and materials.
Hours before the invasion of Ukraine, a “wiper” malware – this erases the data on computers in a network – that appeared to be aimed at Ukraine’s government ministries and financial institutions was detected by Microsoft’s . Microsoft was able to update its virus detection systems to block the code and has since been in “constant and close coordination” with the Ukrainian government.
Researchers said that the extent of Russian cyberattacks against Ukraine was more “muted” than expected. “Many people are quite surprised that there isn’t significant integration of cyberattacks into the overall campaign that Russia is undertaking in Ukraine. This is mostly business as normal as to the levels of Russian targeting,” said Shane Huntley, director of Google’s threat analysis group, to the New York Times.
The perception war
Ukraine was quick to appeal to big tech companies like Google, Apple and Meta to stand against Russia when the military operation began. While Apple’s chief executive Tim Cook was non-committal, said it would not let Russian state media sell adverts using its tools and YouTube said it would limit recommendations to Russian channels in addition to limiting their monetisation.
On February 26, Meta's vice president of global affairs Nick Clegg said that Russia had asked the company to stop fact-checking and labelling posts from four Russian state-owned media organisations. When Meta refused the request, Russia chose to restrict access to its products. Clegg said Meta’s products were being used by ordinary Russians to express themselves and organise protests. “We want them to continue to make their voices heard, share what is happening and organise through Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger,” said Clegg.
Similarly, Twitter has also been restricted for some Russians and the social media company said that it was working to keep its service “”.
Since the Arab Spring movement in the early 2010s, the power of social media has been felt across the world both when it comes to organising popular protests and for their use by governments to curb and control the protests.
In the current situation, Ukraine seems to have edged ahead of Russia in the war of perception.
On the day the war began, the official Twitter handle of Ukraine and then wrote, “It is not a meme, but our and your reality now.” Over the past few days, social media has been used to organise and share plans for , journalists have used these platforms to provide , and civilians have used social media while .
Social media has been an important part of Ukraine’s resistance, with everyone from to using platforms like Twitter and Facebook to share updates. Of late, Twitter trends have been dominated by the Russia-Ukraine war and this reached its height when Zelensky to counter rumours that he had ordered the Ukrainian army to surrender to Russia. (A version with subtitles is available .)
‘A large-scale psychological operation’
While Russia’s official Twitter handle has not tweeted anything about the ongoing campaign in Ukraine, Anton Melnyk from Ukraine’s ministry of digital transformation on February 28 that Twitter and Meta have blocked hundreds of Russian pages, media outlets that were sharing propaganda.
Irrespective of what information is accessible to those in Ukraine and Russia, events from conflict zones are reaching audiences around the world with and even analyses of Russian military operations surfacing on social media. There’s an immediacy to the updates that we haven’t seen before and the urgency to jump on the bandwagon of trending topics has meant more people joining these online conversations. This has meant growing support for Ukraine online, but also vocal support for Russia from unexpected corners, like in India.
On Tuesday, even as reports came in of a massive Russian convoy reaching the outskirts of the capital city of Kyiv, Ukraine’s defence minister Oleksiy Reznikov warned that Russia would launch “”.
Evidently, the results of the cyber war between Ukraine and Russia will be as important and decisive as the territorial victories secured by the military.
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