As I See It: Two Front War
March 28, 2022 Victor Rozek
History records that the Second World War began when Germany invaded Poland, breaching its western border on September 1, 1939. For the Poles, however, that accounted for only half of their unfolding misery. Largely forgotten, 16 days later, the Russians invaded Poland from the East.
Being situated between Germany and Russia in the war-ravaged 20th century turned out to be geographically inauspicious. Long after the Germans were defeated, the Russians stayed. Opportunistic invasion turned into long-term occupation.
A similar story is unfolding in Ukraine, where a two-front war is being waged: one analog, the other digital. Weeks before tanks and troops were unleashed, cyber and social media attacks designed to destabilize the economy and panic the populace were well under way.
Attacks on Ukraine’s financial and communications systems, partnered with a flood of baseless articles, social media posts, and manipulated video clips released by Russian state media, attempting to brand Ukrainians as the aggressors and their country as a nuclear threat. And thus began what is arguably the first livestreamed war.
The prevailing assumption was that Russia’s potent digital army would quickly take down Ukraine’s civilian and military networks. It would sabotage power plants, and deprive the population of daily essentials like water, gas, electronic banking, and refrigeration. Not so fast, Comrade. Five days into the war, the Internet and much of the infrastructure was still largely functioning. As The Washington Post noted: “…the outgunned Ukrainian military was still coordinating effectively, and Russia’s vaunted disinformation capabilities were failing to persuade Ukrainians that resistance is futile.”
Ukraine had apparently upped its cyber security after Russia’s last incursion in 2015-16 when hackers knocked out power to parts of the country. Of course, even the most elegant power-grid-protection will not prevent physical destruction. But bombs and rockets notwithstanding, Ukrainians are finding workarounds while also extracting a measure of cyber retribution.
Mykhailo Federal, the country’s out-of-the-box digital transformation minister, reached out to none other than Elon Musk requesting Starlink satellite Internet terminals that are not dependent on web infrastructure. Starlink uses satellites in low Earth orbit, as opposed to fiberoptic cables and cell towers. Musk agreed to expand the service to Ukraine, and promptly sent containers of terminals. Whether a Tesla was included, is not known.
And then Federal sent out a global call for hackers.
Federal called on IT experts to volunteer for an “IT army” to “fight on the cyber front.” He assured his conscripts, “There will be tasks for everyone.” The White Hat hackers group Anonymous responded by claiming responsibility for taking down a number of Kremlin and Ministry of Defense websites. Belarusian Cyber Partisans, offered to attack its nation’s railway system noting that it was used to transport Russian soldiers. And in Ukraine, a cyber guerrilla group planned to attack Russia’s infrastructure. The Digital sword, as the Russians discovered, is two-edged.
Try as it might, Russia has been unable to fully shield its own population from the realities unfolding in Ukraine. With the possible exception of China, which knows a thing or two about building walls, (cyber as well as stone), gone are the days when governments can be assured of controlling the propaganda narrative. Russia failed to seal off its digital information space, as evidenced by social media-organized mass protests within the country, and threats of 15-years imprisonment against journalists who publish anything war related not cleared through official channels. No idle threat in a country where 58 journalists have been assassinated since 1992. Russian propaganda platforms have been booted off social media, and just a few days into the war, an online petition to stop the attack amassed an amazingly defiant 780,000 signatures. In retaliation, Russia blocked access to Facebook and Twitter.
It’s sobering and surreal to realize that the smartphones and laptops we use daily and so lightly take for granted, are also being used as instruments of war. For both sides, cyber space has played a crucial role in disseminating critical information, maintaining communication channels and, of course, spreading propaganda.
The global social media outcry in response to the invasion, and the live-streaming of the horrific Russian advance and attacks on civilian targets, is thought to have accelerated the speed with which United States and European Union policymakers retaliated. In less than a week they agreed to a package of extraordinary economic sanctions; agreed to equip Ukraine with high-tech weaponry; and essentially agreed to boot Russia from the global economic system. All in five days. It was seemingly an impossible task because all 27 nations in the EU must agree on foreign policy issues. A single nation can block a policy which it believes is not in its own best interest. And since Europe will pay a heavy price in energy costs and reduced trade opportunities, unanimity was far from certain.
A midlevel German bureaucrat was one of the first to take US intelligence reports of Russian troops massing on the Ukrainian border seriously. He compiled a list of punitive steps the EU could undertake, and met secretly, not with the entire EU assembly, but with a series of small groups of EU representatives, convincing them of the necessity of taking unified action.
As of this writing, things look increasing grim for Ukraine. The Russian plan appears to include surrounding major Ukrainian cities, then bombing and starving them into submission. Daily live footage of the unfolding horrors will doubtless continue to be posted on the Internet. May these images help humankind finally understand the futility of war.
In April of 1940, the Russians began to systematically eliminate resistance to their occupation of Poland. They rounded up Poland’s intelligentsia – writers, journalists, philosophers, artists, 5,000 military officers, politicians, religious leaders, industrialists. In all, nearly 22,000 people were apprehended, trucked deep into the Katyn forest, shot in the back of the head, and dumped into mass graves.
Given Putin’s sadistic, maniacal, and vengeful proclivities, I have no doubt a similar fate awaits Ukrainians. The blueprint was written 82 years ago by Stalin: Kill anyone able to inspire resistance and install a puppet government. Social media companies need not convulse over their ethical obligations infringing on their profit margins: this event is not likely to be livestreamed.