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                                 Shortly after Russia in

Cyber, MacGyver, and the Limits of Covert Power

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2024-06-06 14:30:07

Published by The Lawfare Institute in Cooperation With

Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine at the end of February 2022, I received two separate messages from colleagues stranded on the tarmac at major mainland European airports. One was a very senior former British government adviser with extensive direct experience in global affairs. The other was an internationally renowned academic. They had separately reached the same conclusion: Russia’s much predicted cyberwar against the West had begun. Grounding Western commercial aircraft would be one of many ways the Kremlin would use its feared cyber arsenal to stop Western capitals from coming to the aid of Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his beleaguered nation. 

This view was unexceptional among the British elite: A week later, the Sunday Times, Britain’s most influential weekly newspaper, published a long read entitled “How the Russians Could Paralyse Britain” via remote malware attacks. More significantly, Russia’s feared cyber capabilities were central to many predictions of a short war and easy Russian victory: One of many such predictions, from Chatham House, went as far as saying that Vladimir Putin could further his illegal objective of territorial conquest by cyberattacks alone and without a physical invasion. Plenty of other analysts, while not going this far, predicted cyber “shock and awe” that would degrade Ukraine’s ability and willingness to fight. General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff when the war broke out, told the New York Times in April this year that “for a while, we thought this would be a cyberwar.” 

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