Will the Ukraine War Reshape the Internet?

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, for the most part, seems an old-fashioned war of invasion and terror that demands boots on the ground. In reality it has blended traditional and innovative elements, and while the cyber dimension has been less visible, it has been full-fledged from the very start. A study by Microsoft indicates that as a prelude to the war, on Feb 23, 2022, one day before the official invasion, Russia launched a cyberweapon called “Foxblade” against computers in Ukraine. ­“Reflecting the technology of our time, those among the first to observe the attack were half a world away, working in the United States in Redmond, Washington,” the report said. As for the Ukrainian defense, it has been quick “to disburse its digital infrastructure into the public cloud, where it has been hosted in data centers across Europe.”

Ukraine also has launched one of the most successful public relations campaigns ever, amassing international information technology armies of 500,000 hacktivists. It lobbied the Western block for tough sanctions on Russia and was rewarded with the most severe sanctions ever levied on a major economy, and successfully orchestrated a private sector digital embargo. In addition, President Zelensky called for Russia’s right to vote in the UN Security Council to be discounted, and there are calls for similar action in other international institutions. While Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Digital Transformation Mykhailo Fedorov asked internet governance institutions to cut off Russia from the internet. Fedorov’s appeal received a collective but sympathetic no on the grounds that the core of the internet should remain apolitical. Today, Ukraine receives robust intelligence cooperation from the United States, while the European Union offers cyber capacity-building support through its Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) policy. Meanwhile, an agreement has been signed between the State Archival Service of Ukraine and the National Archives of the United Kingdom on the temporary transfer of cloud data storage and backup copies of digital materials of Ukrainian state archival institutions in case of their potential loss.

Russia finds itself facing a strong antagonistic global coalition with activists around the world joining the fight in the digital realm. Historically, Russia has been a spoiler in the cyber world, mainly engaged in cyber influence by disseminating misinformation and disinformation and conspiracy theories, cyberattacks, hacking, and even interference in democratic elections. In this recent conflict, it has employed a very sophisticated cyber strategy, as Microsoft’s study highlights “three distinct and sometimes coordinated efforts—destructive cyberattacks within Ukraine, network penetration and espionage outside Ukraine, and cyber influence operations targeting people around the world.”

In the words of Fedorov, the world is observing  the twenty-first century’s "first cyber world war." In the borderless cyber world, codes have become weapons that move at the speed of light, and war narrative is crowdsourced to be constructed and documented. This war’s soldiers are not just “regular Russian and Ukrainian servicemen or even irregular warriors. It also involves legions of financiers, bankers, business executives, hackers, influencers, and spin doctors.” As for the ensuing Cold War 2.0, it involves an alliance of countries, but also a coalition of the private sector, and civil society. The evolving concept and conduct of war pose serious questions about the nature of war, the meaning of soldier, the practice of propaganda, and the role of government. 

If technology is changing the meaning of war, the war is also changing the technology by expediting innovation and leading its direction through hefty funds offered by governments. When science and technology go to war, how should one make sense of their role in our society, economy, and politics? Because of the nature of cyber technology, the war has gone far beyond the Russia-Ukraine dispute and borders and is now an ideological war involving global powers. As a result, the internet has been dragged into geopolitics: on one hand it is forced to choose a side, and on the other hand, it faces fragmentation and even possible splinternet—a complete breakdown of the internet into separate and independent networks. So far, the internet has shown remarkable resilience, but how long and how far can it endure the ideological pressures?

Tendencies toward fragmentation are hardly a new phenomenon. For over the last two decades, almost all countries have taken steps in that direction. Overall, the free flow of data and information, to various degrees, is seen by sovereign nations as posing a direct challenge to their political systems and hence they aim to control it. As a result, the universal and open ideology that formed the foundation of the internet is changing in the direction of greater state control of networks and network activities. Despite current trends towards fragmentation, an entire split from the global internet is unlikely because nation-states’ political and economic strategic self-interests encourage remaining within the system. However, current political tensions could “exacerbate global trends towards technological decoupling, techno-nationalism, and investment into domestic substitutes that were already apparent before the Ukraine invasion” to an essential digital strategy.

The unique combination of physical and virtual properties of cyberspace makes internet governance particularly challenging. “The physical infrastructure layer largely follows the economic laws of rival resources and increasing marginal costs,” explains Joseph Nye. Most importantly, it easily lends itself to the political laws of sovereign governmental jurisdiction and control. The virtual or informational layers, on the other hand, do not fit well within government jurisdictional control and show economic network characteristics where return increases with scale. To make matters more complicated, low-cost attacks from the informational layer can target the expensive physical layer, where resources are scarce. In contrast, control of the physical layer can have both territorial and extraterritorial implications for the informational layers. Within the complex internet ecosystem, all actors cooperate while competing for power. Nye defines cyber power as a set of resources employed to create, control, and communicate electronic data. It covers infrastructure, networks, software, and human skills and refers to the internet of networked computers, but also intranets, mesh nets, cellular technologies, cables, and space-based communications.

The invasion of Ukraine and the ensuing geopolitical tensions among global powers have brought sharp attention to a major gap in internet governance and have posed new challenges, with open questions surrounding appropriate sanctions and their consequences, as well as an associated governance mechanism and tools. Yet, a single overarching governance regime for cyberspace, as essential as it may be, seems unlikely any time soon. As Nye observes, “A good deal of fragmentation exists now and is likely to persist.” Adding to the complexity is the internet’s extremely volatile ecosystem, given rapid technological change. It lacks coherence and has loose coupling among issues. However, those same characteristics offer flexibility and adaptability, which are critical in this complex context where many actors with different interests interact. It permits actors to cooperate in some areas despite disagreements in others and enables them to adjust to uncertainty. When it comes to international commitments, the implementation is often interdependent, yet governments vary widely in their interest and ability to implement them. Here again, adaptability and flexibility make it possible. Considering that the complex internet governance ecosystem does not lend itself to one simple solution that fits it all but offers flexibility to select the most impactful form of governance in each new situation, then, agreement on principles becomes an essential starting point, and establishing a regime a critical move.

There have been many attempts in this direction, the latest is an initiative by the U.S. government: A Declaration for the Future of the Internet. It was announced on April 28, 2022, and is signed by 60 out of 193 UN governments. It aims to create transatlantic harmony around democratic principles, and as Wolfgang Kleinwächter notes, it “is intended to serve as a reference document for future international negotiations on Internet-related issues” in the same way that the Universal Declaration on Human Rights has operated. As for its vision of the internet, it is old wine in a new bottle, recalling the internet founding fathers’ vision for one open, free, and interoperable internet but adding a new orientation. It is based on five principles: protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, A global internet, inclusive and affordable access to the internet, trust in the digital ecosystem, and multistakeholder internet governance. Kleinwächter points out that the Declaration supports “the preservation of the universality of the Domain Name System (DNS), globally applicable Internet standards, and network neutrality. The message is clear: Regardless of all political disputes, the ‘technical core of the Internet’ should not be attacked.” This is in line with recent statements made by ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), RIPE NCC (Réseaux IP Européens Network Coordination Centre), and ISOC (Internet Society) in response to Ukraine request. However, the declaration is criticized for being a top-down initiative only involving governments. So far, there are no guidelines for nongovernmental stakeholders on how to join the declaration.

The positions that are taken toward the declaration and internet governance are a reflection of broader geopolitics and trends that are currently at full play in the Ukraine invasion. According to Jose Miguel Alonso-Trabanco, Russia is engaged in a dangerous gamble to rewrite the architecture of European security, and while the West and its allies have joined forces in testing Russia’s resilience, the cohesiveness of the Western block should not be taken for granted. Meanwhile, China is caught in a complicated position and its choice is hard to predict. At the same time, most countries from the Middle East, the Asian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, Latin America, and Africa are acting cautiously and avoiding choosing a side. Alonso argues that will change once there is a clear winner or loser. A decisive Russian triumph could give birth to a more multipolar world. Russia’s collapse could lead to turmoil, civil war, or balkanization. Both scenarios entail a high degree of unpredictability.

Adding to the complexity are changing attitudes and current trends. The Ukraine war demonstrated the strength of nationalism: “The invasion turned Ukraine into a cohesive nation despite previous differences in our society,” Oksana Prykhodko, a Ukrainian journalist and the former member of the European Regional At-Large Organization (EURALO) at ICANN, said in an interview with the author in June 2022 during ICANN74. At the same time, the increasing ostracism of Russia has encouraged widespread popular resentment toward the West among Russians. Meanwhile, the pandemic has sharpened the tension between globalization and sovereignty, climate change has become visible, and the need for global action is more real than ever. Finally, the war in Ukraine has further exposed the polarized global order and its inability to apply its long-standing tools of international law. Add to this complex mix the U.S. versus China battle over hardware and technology. Consequently, the internet governance ecosystem that has been formed on the basis of a globalized world is suffering. This unfortunate situation is manifested in the posturing of nation-states toward the declaration.

The signatories to the declaration are the US, all European Union countries, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, and Australia, along with some postcolonial or developing countries concerned about issues of sovereignty, such as Argentina, Uruguay, and Senegal. While the geopolitical divide is very visible and runs across democratic lines, it is an oversimplification to treat this as a bipolar dispute over liberal versus authoritarian approaches. There are important differences within the liberal democratic bloc. Another trend to note is among the G7 Group of 77 nations; some members that used to be nonaligned now feel the moral obligation to choose sides, especially on issues related to technology. What really matters are the “digital deciders” or “swing states”—countries that until now have not assumed a solid position about the future of the internet. Their position will change once there are clear winners, but the outcome of the war is far from clear, as is the geopolitical configuration that will eventually arise from it. Will it favor the Western bloc—marshalled by American leadership—or the Eurasian axis of continental powers? In any event, it is worth remembering that “the balance of power—a geopolitical concept based on a Newtonian understanding of physics—is never static.”

It is within this chaotic geopolitical context and uncertain post-pandemic environment, that internet governance should define itself. This is a significant moment, as decisions about the internet’s role in geopolitics and in our society are all coming under renewed scrutiny, and the outcome could be determinant not just for the technology but also for democratic values and lifestyles. Never before has safeguarding the internet’s apolitical position and its principles of one, open, universal, and accessible internet been more crucial. The internet is an extraordinary human achievement and the defining technology of the twenty-first century, which should be safeguarded before it is too late.

Pari Esfandiari is president of the Global TechnoPolitics Forum. She is a member of the advisory board at APCO Worldwide and served on the at-large advisory committee (ALAC) at ICANN. She was a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s GeoTech Center.

Gregory F. Treverton is a senior adviser (non-resident) with the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., professor of the practice of international relations and spatial sciences at the University of Southern California, and chair of the Global TechnoPolitics Forum.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Pari Esfandiari

President, Global TechnoPolitics Forum