Digital Becomes the New Frontier of the Ukrainian Conflict

Image credit: iStockphoto/gorodenkoff

It is often said that the Vietnam war of the late 1960s was the first armed conflict to be played out on television screens and that this was the factor that helped to drive the anti-war movement.

A half-century later, the Ukrainian conflict illustrates how far technology has come and how many of the digital developments of the last decades can be used in warfare.

In 2022, the new dimensions are not only in the media. In defending its country, Ukraine is using cryptocurrencies and a volunteer cyber army in addition to intense social media as part of its resistance against Russia. Some of the most critical elements of western aid — such as Elon Musk’s Starlink — have been in the digital space.

Much of it, of course, has been in the realm of disinformation. A deep fake video of Ukrainian President Zelensky telling his soldiers to lay down their arms and stop fighting was circulating for a period. There have been instances where old footage has been taken out of context and re-packaged with claims directly from the conflict. A bogus Ukrainian cryptocurrency was created, claiming that it was backed by the Government in Kyiv.

The Ukrainian Government has a Ministry of Digital Transformation. It has been working frantically to raise funds for Ukraine’s defense, spread the Ukrainian perspective of the events, and weaponize cyber hacking as another line of defense against Russia.

Crypto to next level

Ukraine was already a major center for cryptocurrency. But the war is taking it to the next level and could be the next catalyst in taking cryptocurrency mainstream.

To accept financial assistance from supporters worldwide, the Government has created a Crypto Fund of Ukraine, which accepts Bitcoin and Ethereum. At the beginning of the war, the Ukrainian Government posted addresses — on Twitter — of two crypto wallets for contributions, which have now been merged to one account.

Already it has raised an estimated USD55 million, and reportedly USD34 million of this has been used to purchase military equipment and medicine for fighters on the frontline.

“Now we’re considering to help our government buy armored vehicles, to get people back and forth because there’s a high probability of getting hit and we need armored vehicles,” the Deputy Minister for Digital Transformation, Alex Bornyakov, told Euronews Next last week in an interview, made possible by a Starlink connection.

“Now is the time for the industry to demonstrate that blockchains’ inherent transparency make cryptocurrency a powerful deterrent to sanctions evasion”

Ukraine has also mobilized an estimated 300,000 strong “IT Army” of volunteer hackers who use the Telegram messaging service and accept tasks like attacking nominated Russian websites.

Russia has reported an unprecedented level of cyberattacks over the last weeks. One can assume that this is the work of the Ukrainian “IT Army,” even though the Government says it can’t be sure due to the volunteer basis to the system. Perhaps Ukrainian hacking took Russian President Vladimir Putin off the air briefly during his recent speech at a pro-war rally.

“We don’t talk personally to anyone because there is a matter of security, and we don’t want to compromise anyone because there is a risk of infiltration in this case,” Bornyakov said.

On the other side of the sanctions ledger, Russia is reportedly looking to cryptocurrencies to avoid some of the financial sanctions imposed by the west. In the Know Your Customer (KYC) area, blockchain data platform Chainalysis has rolled out the launch of a sanctions screening tool through an API, which enables the user to validate if they are interacting with cryptocurrency wallets associated with “sanctioned entities.”

“Now is the time for the industry to demonstrate that blockchains’ inherent transparency make cryptocurrency a powerful deterrent to sanctions evasion,” said Michael Gronager, co-founder and chief executive of Chainalysis.

Elon Musk inserts himself

Another global player who has inserted himself into the conflict on the Ukrainian side is Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk. While he has resisted calls on Twitter to effectively “turn off” Tesla cars in Russia as an act of protest, his provision of free internet to Ukraine via his Starlink satellite network has been a significant contribution to enabling Ukrainian resistance.

Starlink terminals enable tech workers in Ukraine to continue their work, even if they are located in villages or areas where other infrastructure has been destroyed. Only last week, SpaceX launched another 53 Starlink satellites, bringing the number in orbit to more than 2000, while the company has also made two shipments of Spacelink terminals to Ukraine in recent weeks.

There are reportedly around 5,000 Starlink terminals operating in Ukraine, and one of their most critical applications is providing connectivity to Ukrainian drones as they hunt out Russian tanks. One of the vanguard units in this effort is called Aeorrozvidka — or Aerial Reconnaissance — which uses surveillance and attack drones and a sophisticated system called Delta built with the help of western advisers and accessible by laptops.

Russia, meanwhile, has been stymied in its plans for space. In early March, a planned launch of a Soyuz rocket to deliver 36 OneWeb Internet satellites into orbit was canceled after Russia demanded that the U.K. Government, which holds a stake in OneWeb, divest from the company. The demand saw OneWeb pull its personnel out of the launch site in Kazakhstan.

Alongside the Starlink initiative, global AI satellite imagery provider EOS Data Analytics has called for all entities operating in the remote sensing field to share recent and real-time optical and radar satellite images of Ukraine and Eastern Europe with EOSDA “to assist in both military and humanitarian efforts.”

EOSDA has updated its platform to analyze the military situation immediately, with data processed, analyzed, and shared in real-time with the Ukrainian armed forces and humanitarian organizations.

Sadly, the conflict has some way yet to play out, and no doubt other digital dimensions will be utilized and revealed before the guns fall silent.

Lachlan Colquhoun is the Australia and New Zealand correspondent for CDOTrends and the NextGenConnectivity editor. He remains fascinated with how businesses reinvent themselves through digital technology to solve existing issues and change their entire business models. You can reach him at [email protected].

Image credit: iStockphoto/gorodenkoff