The role of technology in the Russia-Ukraine war
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This month marks a year since Russia invaded Ukraine.
The toll has been devastating — cities turned to rubble, staggering numbers of deaths — and like every war, this one has often turned on technological advances.
It can be a grim experience to delve into the dark side of innovation, but we wanted to look beyond traditional notions of military might and consider how technology off the battlefield is helping Ukraine fight back.
Marketplace’s Meghan McCarty Carino spoke to Steven Feldstein, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, about the crucial advantages tech has provided in such arenas as cybersecurity.
The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Steven Feldstein: It’s one of those things where guaranteeing and trying to ensure that your communications are encrypted, that they won’t be penetrated by the enemy, that you’re able to securely give orders and so forth is extremely important. And so to that end, Ukraine has partnered with many international tech companies, Cloudflare, Microsoft and others, to try to build resilience in its systems. But it’s a really critical piece to this whole thing.
Meghan McCarty Carino: Right. I think in the run-up to this, there was a lot of expectation that this was an area that Russia would really excel with. Has Ukraine proven more resilient than expected with cybersecurity?
Feldstein: I think that’s right. But I think a lot of things changed, partially, one major aspect is the fact that there was an assumption that Ukraine’s systems would stay the same, even after Ukraine got into a war footing. And that actually has not proven to be the case. As Ukraine got to a war footing, it changed its systems, it hardened their encryption and so forth. And that, I think, has negated to some effect Russia’s ability to use cyberattacks to damaging effect.
McCarty Carino: One of the targets that there was a lot of concern about was infrastructure, like communications infrastructure. Have they been able to protect that?
Feldstein: Yeah, you know, it’s been really interesting on that front because, on the one hand, they have been able to protect that, at least in terms of electronic warfare. On the other hand, Russia has then just fallen back to using traditional methods, including strikes, missiles, kamikaze drones, and so forth, in part due to frustration that they haven’t otherwise been able to use, [like] electronic means to disrupt Ukraine’s communication. So it’s sort of, if one tactic doesn’t work, sometimes you turn to another one. But I think also, what’s interesting is that Ukraine has been really good at turning the tables, when it comes to cybersecurity, on Russians. In fact, it’s been able to use signals intelligence and even social media location to be able to target particular groups of Russian soldiers. And so that, that’s been an interesting turn of events as well.
McCarty Carino: This has also been one of the first big tests of Starlink, [the] satellite internet company from Elon Musk. How important has that been?
Feldstein: Everyone seems to say that Starlink has been a pretty significant game changer when it comes to maintaining connectivity for Ukraine, which is something that’s really critical for it to operate the type of weaponry and targeting and systems that it does. If Starlink didn’t exist, or wasn’t there at the scale that it was, I think there would be a real problem in terms of communications infrastructure being destroyed and not having a way to replace that. With mobile Starlink units, that has sort of solved, to some degree, this connectivity issue. Now there’s a bigger question in terms of how long Starlink will remain in place. And there’s been different signals about whether Starlink wants to continue providing that kind of service. But at least for now, in the past year of war, Starlink has been crucial to Ukraine’s battlefield tactics.
McCarty Carino: There’s also been an important role for kind of consumer technology, these crowdsourcing apps that citizens are using on the ground. Tell me about some of the important apps and how people are using them.
Feldstein: Sure. There’s a few that have really come to the forefront. So one is something, a secure chat system called eVorog that allows civilians to provide multiple reports of different Russian troop movements and so forth. Another, related system is something called the Diia app, which was a traditional government system that was then repurposed to allow civilians to upload images and geolocation coordinates, different Russian military assets. And then, of course, there’s also, you know, a 200-plus strong army of drones to look over and survey the battlefield landscape and then report coordinates back to Ukrainian forces for strikes. So all these together have really helped to bring civilian involvement to a much greater degree when it comes to the, to the war.
McCarty Carino: Yeah. I understand the Diia app was sort of, before the war, was used for things like paying parking tickets or reporting potholes.
Feldstein: That’s right. In that sense, it was an app that a lot of Ukrainians already were familiar with and already used anyway in their daily lives. And so once the war came, you know, they very smartly — the Ukrainian government — repurposed that. It was already something that was used at scale. And so there was kind of a seamless transition between something that was used for public service delivery and now is also assisting the war effort.
McCarty Carino: How does this, though, complicate some of the rules of engagement?
Feldstein: Right. Well, there definitely is a blurring of the lines when it comes to, to what extent [does] a civilian lose noncombatant status when they report the location of Russian tanks or missiles or drones that are then used for military action by the Ukrainian army? And so, you know, the concept under international humanitarian law is direct participation in hostilities. And, you know, this is something that I think, because it’s happening at a larger scale and because it’s happening more rapidly because of apps, is an issue that really has risen to the forefront in terms of, what are those protections that are still afforded to civilians? And when do they lose those protections by using apps in this manner?
McCarty Carino: We’re now almost a year into this conflict, and the physical side of it is maybe even intensifying. Do you think that the technological side of this fight will continue to be as key of an advantage or as important?
Feldstein: I think it will continue to be an advantage. I think one of the really important insights that we’ve learned is that there really is very little sanctuary in modern warfare. So the idea that you can have surprise columns of Russian forces, for example, come through is not really possible when you have this many sensors, whether it’s smartphone apps, uploading information, commercial satellite imagery or so forth. So I do think it’ll be a critical part. But I also think it’s important to note as well that there is a real human cost in general to what’s happening in the war that technology is not going to be able to offset, and the scale of civilian deaths in the past year is really shocking. No matter what kind of technology is used, I think the horrors of the war itself and the cost associated with that in terms of civilian lives, not to mention military lives, is staggering.
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