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Russia's Invasion of Ukraine Heralds New Era of Warfare

FILE - Debris covers a railway depot ruined after a Russian rocket attack in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Sept. 28, 2022.
FILE - Debris covers a railway depot ruined after a Russian rocket attack in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Sept. 28, 2022.

There are growing concerns among top U.S. military and intelligence officials that Russia’s use of cyberattacks during its war against Ukraine is ushering in a new era of combat in which the line between virtual and real-life battlefields is being erased, along with the notion that any targets will remain off limits.

Instead, top officials are warning that U.S. adversaries are likely to look at Moscow’s efforts to topple Kyiv and conclude that not only do they need to coordinate cyber strikes with conventional, kinetic military tactics, but that a cyberattack may be the best first-strike option.

“The [Russian] operation in Ukraine as it relates to red lines for conflict should be of concern to many people,” a senior defense official told reporters during a briefing to the Defense Writers Group this past Friday.

“If you're willing to drop a bomb on a power station, or if you're willing to drop a bomb on a rail network, then you're certainly willing to execute a cyberattack against them,” the defense official said in response to a question from VOA, speaking on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set for the briefing.

“As a just general commonsense sort of military tactic, I don't believe you would reduce something to rubble if you had the ability to neutralize it otherwise,” the official added. “You don't want to use high-end kinetic tools unless you have to.”

Russia, though, has been using some of its top-end weaponry, including its Kinzhal hypersonic missile, to take out Ukrainian power plants and other critical infrastructure that have already been targeted by a series of cyberattacks.

“My belief is that had the Russians had the ability to significantly shut down Ukrainian critical infrastructure via cyber, they wouldn't have wasted kinetic munitions on it,” the senior defense official said.

Despite the apparent failure of Russian cyberattacks to do more damage, Ukrainian officials have warned the pace of such attacks has picked up, and U.S. Cyber Command has warned the Kremlin’s cyber exploits could well “become bolder and look at broader targets.”

China taking notice

U.S. officials also assess that China is learning from Russia’s cyber failures as they prepare for future military confrontation, including potential plans to retake Taiwan.

“I think there's been a general assessment that what the Russians did in Ukraine was not very well coordinated,” the senior defense official told reporters. “I think the Chinese will look at that, and if the Chinese have a plan to invade Taiwan in 2027, I would expect they have a cyber plan to go along with that. ... They will study what happened, and they will try and not make the same mistakes.”

Other U.S. officials have gone as far as to suggest the first indication of a Chinese attack on Taiwan could come in cyberspace.

The first signs of a looming military confrontation in Taiwan "could probably start well below the threshold of a conflict," Doug Wade, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency’s China Mission Group, said during a virtual event last month. "It would probably include a wide variety of activities, starting with things like cyber.”

Some analysts studying cyberwarfare agree that Russia’s war against Ukraine has changed the cyber landscape, potentially setting up another test for the effectiveness of cyberattacks with China and Taiwan.

“I think that you could see the first steps in a conflict over Taiwan, for example, to be trying to blind the U.S., in particular, to what China was about to do and then also blind the Taiwanese to what was about to happen, as well,” Emily Harding, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told VOA.

“I suspect that the cost-benefit analysis will come down on the side of cyberattacks, [which] are a reasonably low cost, reasonably high benefit way to at least confuse your adversary and perhaps undermine their ability to fight. So, it will be tried again,” she said.

Yet there are also those who think it will still take time before Russia, China or another nation is able to effectively use a cyberattack as a first-strike option.

“I think framing it as a first strike is a little bit misleading,” said Jason Blessing, a visiting research fellow at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute.

Blessing told VOA that while there is ample evidence that an increase in cyberactivity could be an indication of a looming physical attack, cyberattacks have yet to show they are capable of doing more than paving the way for conventional military operations.

“The drawback to using cyber operations, though, is it requires intense time and resources to plan something like that,” he said. “Cyber operations are almost always going to be complementary to the broader strategic goals and broader conventional aims. … It’s not that it's going to replace launching a missile or driving a tank into some territory.”