On December 23, 2015, hackers attacked Ukraine’s power grid, disabling control systems used to coordinate remote electrical substations, and leaving people in the capital and western part of the country without power for several hours. . The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) blamed the Russian government for the cyber-attack, an accusation that later found support in malware analysis by a private computer security firm. Attacks launched through the digital realm are playing an increasingly visible role in civil and interstate conflict—in Ukraine, Syria, Israel, Estonia, Georgia, and beyond. Yet it remains unknown whether such activities have a real coercive impact on the battlefield.
This article begins with an in-depth study of the Ukrainian case, as one of few conflicts where both sides have used cyber-attacks as a means of coercion. Due to the sophistication of hackers on both sides, the public nature of many attacks, and an abundance of data, the Ukrainian conflict allows us to observe the short-term coercive impact of cyber-attacks. This study then uses analogous event data on Syria to evaluate the generalizability of the results. While a more systematic analysis of cross-national patterns lies beyond the scope of this article, micro-level evidence from these two conflicts might be suggestive of general patterns of modern warfare—particularly where combatants with asymmetric capabilities use cyberspace along with traditional tools of war.
The evidence presented in this article—based on analysis of new data and expert interviews—suggests that cyber-attacks are ineffective as a tool of coercion in war. Although kinetic operations explain the timing of other kinetic operations, low-level cyber-attacks have no discernible effect on violence in the physical world. In Ukraine and Syria, the “cyberwar” has unfolded in isolation from the rest of the conflict.
Recent years have seen growing concern over the use of cyber attacks in wartime, but little evidence that these new tools of coercion can change battlefield events. We present the first quantitative analysis of the relationship between cyber activities and physical violence during war. Using new event data from the armed conflict in Ukraine—and additional data from Syria’s civil war—we analyze the dynamics of cyber attacks and find that such activities have had little or no impact on fighting. In Ukraine—one of the first armed conflicts where both sides deployed such tools extensively—cyber activities failed to compel discernible changes in battlefield behavior. Indeed, hackers on both sides have had difficulty responding to battlefield events, much less shaping them. An analysis of conflict dynamics in Syria produces similar results: the timing of cyber actions is independent of fighting on the ground. Our finding—that cyber attacks are not (yet) effective as tools of coercion in war—has potentially significant implications for other armed conflicts with a digital front.
Invisible Digital Front: Can Cyber Attacks Shape Battlefield
Nadiya Kostyuk, Yuri M. Zhukov
First Published November 10, 2017 Research Article ~
Journal of Conflict Resolution