Notes from a CSIS Virtual Event: Cyber in the Ukraine Invasion

By Jose Macias
On March 14, 2022, CSIS hosted a discussion on the use of cyber during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The event featured remarks from Senator Mark Warner, Chairman of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI), and a panel discussion with Chris Painter, President of the Global Forum on Cyber Expertise Foundation, and Greg Rattray, Co-Founder and Partner at Next Peak LLC and former Global Chief Information Security Officer at JPMorgan Chase. The event was moderated by James  Lewis.
Senator Warner discussed  the leadership of Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the role of intelligence sharing. He credited the intelligence community for exposing Russia’s intention to establish a new regime in Ukraine and their plans to use a false flag video to justify an invasion. The Senator said a proactive sharing of intelligence, or as Warner called it “forward leaning intelligence” is key to working h the US’s partners, and contributed to Germany’s termination of their Nord Stream 2 pipeline and historically neutral Switzerland agreeing to impose sanctions on Russia.
On  cybersecurity during the conflict, the senator qualified the use of cyberattacks so far—wiperware in Ukraine’s critical infrastructure—as mild. Although the use of cyberattacks has so far been limited and there has been no geographical spillover, he reinforced the “need to keep our shields up… we can’t be 100% in our defense, but we need to have resilience” and highlighted the passing of mandatory cyber incident reporting as a new tool to help defense. The omnibus bill recently passed by Congress also includes additional funding for the National Security Agency and Cyber Command. Warner believes these investments will bolster U.S. efforts to combat Russian information warfare. He also credited General Nakasone for his leadership in signal intelligences and NSA's support for the forward leaning intelligence that stripped Russia of any credibility . Finally, Warner argued that intelligence sharing can lead to international unity, exemplified by the U.N. Resolution condemning Russia’s aggression, backed by 141 countries.
Senator Warner also explored the effects of the war on Congress’ priorities, as the United States enters a great power conflict with Russia and China, framing it as democratic versus antidemocratic systems of political and economic power. The CHIPS Act will be a critical instrument to face this challenge. The senator acknowledged that Congress needs to move faster on the bill to incentivize establishing semiconductor manufactures in the United States and bolster competition. In addition, he called for “building technology alliances” with democracies, including investments in semiconductors and protocol development. The senator recognized that historically “[spending on] R&D is small as percentage of GDP” and called for more investment. He pointed to spending on cybersecurity at a local and state level as a blind spot, and called on the private sector to support local governments. Senator Warner’s final point warned about the risks if the United States continues to invest in legacy defense platforms, leaving future domains and other sensitive tools underfunded.
The panel discussion featured  Chris Painter and Greg Rattray, moderated by James Lewis. The conversation covered a range of topics:
  • On the mild use of cyber capabilities by Russia: They agreed that this was a surprising development and pointed to the success of cyber capacity building in Ukraine as key to their successful defense. Painter attributed this to a lack of preparation by Russian cyber operators to act, because Russia expected a quick victory. However, Painter cautioned that Russia could execute more cyber operations in the future. He also worried that using severe sanctions could deplete the U.S.’ toolkit to deter future cyber aggression. Rattray, citing Ukraine’s call for volunteers to support a cyber offensive, highlighted the need to prevent bleeding effects and limit escalation by civilian cyber actors. Lack of governmental oversight could lead to miscalculations and civilians attacking sensitive target. Further he called for an improved warning system of cyber campaigns.
  • On the U.S. response to Russia’s invasion: While not privy to information about U.S. cyber offensive operations, Painter argued that any such operation will follow international law and be calibrated to prevent escalation. The public should not expect the downing of an electrical grid or any illegal operation that “burn[s] capabilities.” Rattray believed suppression is at play against Russian capabilities. He also argued for more multilateral and multistakeholder engagement to lend assistance and improve resilience. Painter argued for a targeted offensive campaign against websites and domains that push disinformation and to “black hole them.”
  • On the role of cryptocurrencies: Rattray highlighted the need to regulate cryptocurrency, especially if they could be used to circumvent sanctions. Painter agreed and argued for know your customer and anti-money laundry rules on the larger cryptocurrency exchanges. He highlighted the Biden administration’s recent executive order to study digital currency as a step in the right direction.
Closing the session, Lewis asked Painter and Rattray for an overview of the lessons that the U.S. and its allies should take away: They noted 1) the collective approach seen so far  is an opening for improved resiliency 2) The United States and its allies are not out of the woods yet, “shields up,” and 3) invest in methods to overcome information asymmetry on cyber capabilities by adversaries.
The full conversation was recorded and is available here. A full transcript is available here.

Jose Macias is a research intern with the Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.
The Strategic Technologies Blog is produced by the Strategic Technologies Program at 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)