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Ukraine’s Digital Fight Goes Global

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03.05.2022

A somewhat conventional war is underway in Ukraine, featuring organized and professional soldiers, a chain of command, advanced weapons such as drones and tanks, and state-crafted tactics and strategy. But a parallel war is also taking place, mostly in cyberspace, fueled by foreign volunteers fighting for either Russia or Ukraine. These online volunteer forces are loosely organized and don’t have a chain of command. They have grown exponentially since the war began in February—Ukrainian authorities estimate that some 400,000 hackers from numerous countries have aided the country’s digital fight so far. Several high-profile figures have offered to join the cause: the entrepreneur Elon Musk, for instance, has challenged Russian President Vladimir Putin to a “single combat” duel to decide the fate of Ukraine. Hundreds of thousands of people from around the world have begun to engage in cyberwarfare related to the conflict, in an impressive feat of grassroots mobilization.

For those rooting for a besieged country defending its territorial integrity, this arrangement may seem to have no downside: civilians from around the world are volunteering their time and skills to help Ukraine win without expecting remuneration or reward from its government. But there are serious risks involved in waging an informal cyberbattle against Russia, particularly since cyberwarfare may be one of the few remaining tools in the Kremlin’s playbook. This parallel war sets Russia and the West on a collision course—and risks spinning out of control into a chaotic, high-stakes contest that could spread beyond the cyber-domain.

Recognizing the global momentum on its side as people around the world sought to support the Ukrainian defense, the government in Kyiv forged this informal network in the early days of the war. “We are creating an IT army. We need digital talents. . . . There will be tasks for everyone. We continue to fight on the cyber front,” tweeted Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s vice prime minister and minister of digital transformation, on February 26, including a link to the newly created “IT Army of Ukraine” group on the chat app Telegram. Offers to aid Ukraine’s cyber-efforts began arriving immediately—“Let me know if our team can be of any assistance (free of charge of course),” wrote the CEO of a cybersecurity startup. Since then, the Telegram group has grown to almost 300,000 members.

People from all corners of the world have joined the digital fight. They have worked on projects ranging from disabling Russian government pages to building a website to combat Russian misinformation—and they have often succeeded. But while the efforts on the part of this volunteer army have been impressive, they could very well backfire, threatening to escalate and prolong the conflict rather than delivering a decisive victory for either side.

In the wake of Russia’s invasion of its southern neighbor, civilians from around the world have sought to find ways to get involved in the conflict from afar. Some of these efforts are essentially boosterism: countless people tweet images and videos in support of one side or the other, seemingly irrespective of the accuracy of the information. But some of the volunteer work has been of the more skilled variety: a Norwegian computer expert, for instance, has created a spamming program that sends an automated message denouncing the attack to 150 Russian email addresses at a time. "Dear friend, I am writing to you to express my concern for the secure future of our children on this planet. Most of the world has condemned Putin's invasion of........

© Foreign Affairs


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