[Editorial] The Role of Cyber warfare in the Russia-Ukraine conflict – Importance and limitations

Context: Post 100 days of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the world is awash with speculation about the reasons for the so-called failure of the Russian armed forces to deal a decisive blow against a much smaller Ukrainian army. Reasons for Russia’s lacklustre performance need to be found elsewhere.

Given that cyber is often touted as the Fifth Dimension of warfare, it may be worthwhile to examine whether this indeed is the first major conflict in which ‘cyber’ is playing a crucial role, allowing a weaker nation with cyber capabilities to use it to its advantage.

Quick revision mind map

Reasons for the bad performance of the Russian army

Several reasons have been adduced by experts in the West for the lacklustre performance of the Russian army. Frequently mentioned are:

Lack of motivation and the poor morale of the Russian forces:

  • Many of whom were conscripts who had little desire to participate in a bloody conflict.
  • The absence of trust between the higher and the middle/lower rungs of the Russian armed forces led to a hiatus at the operational level.

Outdated Russian weaponry:

  • Russian weaponry is outdated and ineffective to fight an informationalised war under modern conditions, such as the one that Ukraine was waging at present with generous help from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and western powers.

Lack of appropriate decisions and plans:

  • Russian commanders have also proved inept in devising plans and taking appropriate decisions in battlefield conditions against a determined enemy.

The role of cyber-warfare

  • Although cyberspace is a man-made domain, it had become critical to military operations on land, sea, air and space.
  • The Russian military oligarchy is indeed among the world leaders in digital disruption and cyber-methodology, and one could have reasonably presumed that even before the conflict commenced, Russia would have swamped Ukraine with an avalanche of digital attacks.
  • Ukraine, for its part, has its own digital army, including a corps of digital weapons.
  • Several weeks into the war, however, there is little clarity as to the extent to which both sides have deployed cyberweapons.
  • Both sides now possess and use malware such as data-wipers which have proved highly effective.
  • A series of distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks against Ukrainian banking and defence websites occurred simultaneously.
  • In addition, Wiper malware was introduced into several Ukraine Government networks, while the websites of the Ukrainian Defence Ministry and military targets faced a series of DDoS and phishing attacks.

Most probable and repeated topics of upsc prelims

What are the limits of cyber warfare?

  • As far as the conduct of the war is concerned, the string of small-scale cyberattacks cannot be said to have had any material impact on the conduct or outcome of the conflict.
  • It is very likely, and possibly a fact, that there are major difficulties in planning and executing massive cyberattacks on a short timeline to ensure higher efficacy of kinetic attacks.

Bottom Line

  • As of now, cyberattacks have an impact that is well below the threshold of what a nuclear war, even a limited one, could produce.

Practice Question for Mains

  1. Cyber is often touted as the Fifth Dimension of warfare. In the context of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, examine how far ‘cyber’ is playing a crucial role, allowing a weaker nation with cyber capabilities to use it to its advantage. (15 Marks, 250 Words).
Referred Sources


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