Amidst the turmoil of war, Ukraine’s cyber-operators stand firmly on the front lines, their heated exchanges with Russian counterparts transforming the battlefield into a new high-tech arena of combat. Illia Vitiuk, at the helm of the Ukrainian Security Service’s (SBU) cyber department, asserts that a proportion of Ukrainian forces are deeply embroiled in this digital combat, employing a diverse arsenal of hacking skills and superlative special forces tactics in a bid to infiltrate Russian systems.
Nestled within the fortress-like SBU headquarters, Vitiuk discloses the secret weapon of his team — a fusion of hackers and special forces that probe Russian systems, work in tandem with physically deployed snipers, and leverage state-of-the-art technologies. They harness the power of artificial intelligence (AI) in their visual recognition systems, decoding data from aerial drones, human informants, satellites, and other technical sources to aid the military in target selection and threat detection.
But their efforts don’t stop at reconnaissance; the team hacks into surveillance cameras on occupied terrains to monitor Russian troop activities, directs mission-suicide drones to disable Russian spying cameras, and quite remarkably, this often necessitates operating undercover, perilously close to the target.
The innovative use of drones, utilized for both surveillance and offensive missions, leaves an indelible mark on this escalating conflict. The SBU’s cyber team not only deploys its own fleet of drones but also indulges in a high-stakes game of digital sabotage to inhibit the function of Russia’s drones. They even seize control over enemy drones, converting them to Ukrainian assets.
Dangerously close proximity to the front line proves integral to their operations—a risk carried by each team member, necessitating embedded security details for their protection. In the absence of urban comforts, they train new operators, and the priority isn’t only handling the drones but also staying alive – mastering the art of escape and evasion.
Earlier stages of the war saw drone operations spanning up to 10 km distance from the front lines. But struggle against Russian jamming signals now requires Ukrainian operators to operate from a dangerously closer range.
The war has also nudged Russian intelligence services to position their cyber units close to the front lines. This move, seemingly for improved communication with the military, also provides expedited access to captured Ukrainian devices or nearby communications—a significant potential source of additional tactical intelligence.
Ukraine has weathered the storm of cyber warfare well before the full-scale invasion of February 2022. A string of events – like the attack on public websites by Russians in the early stages, a series of cyber blitzes immediately preceding the invasion, and debilitating assaults on US satellite services used by Ukraine’s military – evidence the increasing importance of controlling information flow in this digitized warfare.
Even symbolic infrastructures like television towers and data centres have not been spared. However, the resilient Ukrainian spirit led to a restoration of broadcasting services and safeguarding critical data by timely shifting them to remote servers. Equally pivotal in this relentless cyber onslaught is the contribution of Ukraine’s tech-savvy populace. From providing real-time situational intelligence to aiding in infrastructure restoration, they have been steadfast in their resistance.
With relentless cyber-attacks often coordinating with missile strikes, Ukraine’s incident response facility functions round the clock. Their efforts range from countering attacks on government infrastructures to maintaining open lines of communications, all while weathering the continuous stream of attacks.
Within the confines of the Ukrainian Security Service, Vitiuk’s cyber-team tirelessly strives to rebut the advances of Russia’s elite hackers, launching their own digital counter-offensives by infiltrating the adversary’s systems and listening in to their conversations. This digital sparring isn’t easy, with plenty of close calls, but Ukrainians are learning to digest Russian cyber attacks, a controlled threat that serves as a shield against attacks being potentially directed towards Western targets.
As Ukraine navigates the harsh, uncharted terrain of technologically integrated modern warfare, this nation and its allies continue to learn, adapt and confront their adversary with every new sunrise.