Thursday, February 22, 2024

Ukraine one year on: When tech companies go to war

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Technology has shaped warfare for thousands of years. Russia’s war in Ukraine, however, is perhaps the first conflict in which global technology companies have played such a direct and central role. This is because many domains that are critical in securing a state’s territorial integrity are now controlled by these companies – including cyber-security, satellite imagery, access to the internet, and the surveillance of information. NATO and European leaders should learn from Ukraine’s experience and reassess how they work with tech companies to prevent and fight future wars.

The role of tech giants in Ukraine

Russia pursues multiple strategic goals through its hybrid warfare – which includes conventional, irregular, informational, and cyber elements. These goals range from the destruction of Ukraine’s critical digital assets to global disinformation campaigns. The Kremlin also regularly combines cyber-warfare with kinetic operations: for example, in the simultaneous shelling of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant and major cyber-attack against its operator – Ukraine’s state nuclear power company, Energoatom.

It would not be possible to counter this kind of warfare without the input of tech companies. Microsoft and Amazon, for example, have proven fundamental in helping Ukrainian public and private actors secure their critical software services. They have done so by moving their on-site premises to cloud servers to guarantee the continuity of their activities and aid in the detection of and response to cyber-attacks. Moreover, Google has assisted Ukraine on more than one front: it created an air raid alerts app to protect Ukraine’s citizens against Russian bombardment, while also expanding its free anti-distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) software – Project Shield – which is used to protect Ukraine’s networks against cyber-attacks.

Another game changer has been the accessibility of open-source intelligence through commercial satellite services. In the weeks leading up to the war, this helped independent sources verify US government claims about the concentration of Russian troops and the threat of invasion. Then, as the attack unfolded, Ukrainian forces tracked Russian troop movements using Google Maps. Later, when this became a double-edged sword for Ukraine because it revealed Ukrainian troop positions to Russia’s forces, Google disabled traffic updates and concentration features to prevent the exposure of Ukrainian operations. Private satellite companies, such as Maxar Technologies and Capella Space, have also made their imagery publicly available through media outlets and social media platforms. This has been especially valuable in exposing Russia’s war crimes and fighting disinformation through the dissemination of images of the devastation wrought by Russian troops.

Tech companies also hold the keys to an effective fight against disinformation. For instance, in the days following the invasion, Meta established a special operations centre to monitor and curb disinformation spread by Russia-controlled media outlets. Digital platforms such as Twitter, YouTube, and Google have curbed the access of state-owned Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik news in Europe and in some cases globally, following EU sanctions. The Kremlin, however, has partly circumvented this ban – continuing to spread disinformation via new domains and subsidiaries, such as the RT-owned YouTube alternative, Ruptly.

Finally, satellite internet connections have been a key – if controversial – issue in Ukraine. Elon Musk’s Starlink supplies the Ukrainian government and armed forces with internet connection through its low-orbit satellite service and some 5,000 terminals. This has enabled Ukrainian troops and institutions to continue operating despite Russia’s destruction of telecommunications infrastructure. By October 2022, Starlink’s expenditure had reached approximately $80 million – though how much of this cost Starlink actually covered itself remains open to discussion. The Tesla CEO has since requested that the Pentagon assume all the financial responsibility. Musk has also moved to restrict the use of Starlink’s internet services with drones – which some commentators have interpreted as an attempt to protect Tesla’s interests in China and non-aligned countries. This demonstrates the risks of allowing effective public-private cooperation to break down – particularly when companies’ priorities may diverge from states’ geopolitical interests.

The next war

Tech companies have gone to war voluntarily and largely at their own cost. By doing so, they have asserted their positioning as independent international actors whose leadership capacity stems from their financial resources, impact, and outreach.

Mounting a successful defence against hybrid threats will not be possible without the cooperation of tech companies

This provides important lessons for the future. Even before the war, the European Union was alert to the grey zones in which technology is weaponised to conduct warfare and spark political instability. The EU’s 2022 Strategic Compass document listed hybrid strategies, cyber-attacks, and foreign information manipulation and interference as threats to its own security. Yet, mounting a successful defence against these threats will not be possible without the cooperation of tech companies.

In response to this new reality, countries such as Israel and the United States have ‘hybridised’ military and civilian technology investments so that their products can serve dual purposes. Multilateral joint initiatives on technological innovation have also sprung up, such as NATO’s Defence Innovation Accelerator fund and the EU’s Hub for Defence Innovation under the European Defence Agency. But these bodies need to work more closely with the private sector: that is, to (successfully) fight hybrid wars, states need to become hybrid themselves.

Tech corporations have become owners and rulers of the critical assets that a sovereign state requires to function. A lack of access to technology can be a matter of life or death – as the past year in Ukraine has shown. The challenge ahead for public actors is to build the synergies with tech companies that are necessary to confront a deteriorating world order. The corporations, meanwhile, should continue developing their geopolitical awareness so they can help revitalise and sustain that order.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

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