Russian cyberwar

Putin’s Ukraine Folly a Major Setback for Future Russian Cyberwar Capabilities

Since I first began covering cybersecurity and intelligence in 1996, Russian hackers have enjoyed an almost mythical reputation. They seemed to be lurking in every shadow and their exploits have dominated western media headlines.

But for the past several years Russia has been waging and losing a quiet war to recruit and keep the technical talent it needs to remain a major power in cyberspace. Now faced with history’s most devastating set of economic sanctions as a result of its unprovoked and illegal war on Ukraine, Russia faces the very real potential of becoming a second-rate cyber power.

Long before Putin began massing troops along the border of Ukraine, Russian tech talent was fleeing the country by the thousands. In a 2020 letter to Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, Natalia Kasperskaya, chair of the Otechestvennie Soft programmers association, and Valentin Makarov, president of Russoft warned that Russia stood to lose as many as 15,000 IT professionals due to the country’s economic downturn. 

A poll conducted by Russoft among Russian IT companies revealed that more than 15 percent have lost at least 10 percent of their employees, while 42 percent have made at least some staff cuts. According to another survey, between 20,000 and 25,000 IT professionals could lose their jobs.

Shortly after the invasion of Ukraine in February, the Russian daily newspaper Kommersant estimated that 5,000 IT specialists were considering the option of leaving Russia. By day seven of the Russian invasion, that figure reached the tens of thousands, according to a report by bne IntelliNews.

Other issues, such as Russia’s adoption of a law that requires digital assets to be purchased in Russia and declared by whoever buys them are likely to spur more emigration. “The adoption of the digital financial asset law in its current state is likely to speed up an exodus of IT professionals,” Yuri Pripachkin, head of the Russian Association of Cryptocurrency and Blockchain, was quoted as saying by RBC. “People won’t see prospects here. For instance, those who are currently using an e-citizenship as a temporary solution will decide that there’s no future for them here and they’ll just leave. We’ll again lose potential Googles, WhatsApps and Telegrams.”

Renat Lashin, executive director of Russia’s Domestic Software Association, said “a brain drain in the IT industry would lead to the country’s decline in competitiveness in crucial innovative segments such as artificial intelligence, information security, automation medical and defence technology.”

This dire trend is set against the backdrop of the impact of the Coronavirus on the Russian tech economy, as well as years of bureaucratic government failures to grow talent and invest in innovation. The most recent set of sanctions imposed as a result of Putin’s war against Ukraine could permanently derail Russian cyberwar programs.

For example, Russia-wide restrictions will choke off Russia’s import of technological goods critical to a diversified economy and Putin’s ability to project power, the White House said. This includes Russia-wide denial of exports of sensitive technology, primarily targeting the Russian defense, aviation, and maritime sectors to cut off Russia’s access to cutting-edge technology. In addition to sweeping restrictions on the Russian-defense sector, the U.S. imposed Russia-wide restrictions on sensitive U.S. technologies produced in foreign countries using U.S.-origin software, technology, or equipment. This includes Russia-wide restrictions on semiconductors, telecommunication, encryption security, lasers, sensors, navigation, avionics, and maritime technologies. 

These severe and sustained controls will cut off Russia’s “access to finance and technology for strategic areas of its economy and degrade its industrial capacity for years to come,” said President Joe Biden

NATO is Watching Closely

The decline of Russian cyberwar capabilities has not escaped the attention of NATO. 

“In the highly unlikely event that Moscow faced imminent and overt conflict with NATO, these limitations would become more pronounced, as Russian services probably would be unable to match their adversary in terms of sustained and simultaneous offensive cyber operations, all while attempting to protect their own networks,” concluded a 202O study by the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence. “Perhaps more importantly, Russia’s cyber limitations will likely affect its ambitions to harness emerging technologies relevant to offensive and defensive capabilities.”

Putin’s strategic mistake in Ukraine also comes with significant implications for Moscow’s ability to defend itself in cyberspace.

“These developments in Russia occur against a backdrop of serious deficiencies in national cyber security,” the NATO study concluded. “While Moscow has demonstrated a clear and consistent interest in improving this, efforts to boost critical infrastructure cyber security are under-resourced and mired in stalled initiatives to reduce dependence on foreign software and hardware. The extensive use of pirated software to shore up cyber security and an aging computing infrastructure also hinder the state’s drive to improve these capabilities.”