Russia, the Ukraine invasion, and U.S. cybersecurity implications

Russia, the Ukraine invasion, and U.S. cybersecurity implications

Summary: ZDNet's resident cyberwar expert, David Gewirtz, presents a SITREP (situation report) analyzing unexpected areas where US interests might be vulnerable in the unlikely event that the Russian invasion of Ukraine generates a response by US or UN forces.


Could America end up in a shooting war with Russia over Ukraine? It's unlikely, but there are precedents that would support such an action.

One of the jobs of geopolitical strategists is to "game out" possible scenarios -- however unlikely -- to help prepare national security officials and the National Command Authority for possible weaknesses in our security and attacks that might come from unexpected quarters.

Russia and the Ukraine are one such scenario. Speaking of unlikely, one of the earliest people to speak of Vladimir Putin's possible invasion of Ukraine was Sarah Palin back in the 2008 presidential campaign. She made the statement as part of one of her many seemingly over-the-top criticisms of then-Senator Obama.

Now, of course, such an invasion is taking place. Russian troops have already taken hold of Crimea and Putin's puppet parliament voted unanimously to deploy troops in the rest of Ukraine.

A matter of precedent

Here we have a case of a stronger, strongman-led country invading a weaker neighbor for the strategic benefits it can provide. Do we have another example of such an invasion -- along with an American response -- that we can use as a precedent? If so, we might be able to predict one way America might respond to Russia's act of aggression.

As it turns out, we do. It was August 2, 1990 at 2am local time that Iraqi tanks rolled across the border into Kuwait, beginning both the occupation of the smaller neighbor country and what would come to be known as the first Gulf War.

Shortly after the invasion, the UN Security Council met and passed Resolution 660, which condemned the invasion. Two other resolutions followed, one authorizing economic sanctions and another authorizing a naval blockade of Iraq.

After four months, when Iraq still did not remove its troops, the UN passed Resolution 678, which set a deadline of January 15, 1991 where, if troops were not removed, a coalition of troops from 12 countries and the UN would invade. Of course, of the 956,600 troops overall, 697,000 were from the United States. So while the US made up 1/13th of the coalition, almost 75 percent of the troops (and presumably money and materiel) came from the US and US taxpayers.

Operation Desert Storm began on January 17, 1991 and ended famously in Iraq, 150 miles from Baghdad.

So there we have precedent. A large, belligerent country invaded its neighbor, the UN condemned it, the invader did not withdraw, and eventually the UN (made up mostly by US troops) got into a shooting war to force withdrawal.

Differences between Iraq and Russia

Given this precedent, it is possible to postulate that a similar course of action might (and I stress "might" rather than "will") happen with Russia and its invasion of Ukraine.

There are, of course, considerable differences in these two situations. Saddam Hussein's Iraq was far more isolated on the world stage than Putin's Russia. After all, the Olympics just took place in Sochi. Russia has embraced an international trade and both exports and imports products actively. Putin has also been a much more deft international figure than Saddam, creating something of a cult of personality outside his nation, rather than abusing the vast majority his citizens within it. Of course, if you're in Russia, it's probably prudent not to get Putin peeved at you.

Further, while Saddam's 1991 Iraq was very well armed, it still wasn't Russia, with its far greater armament and years of Cold War experience staring down Western allies. The bottom line is simply this: going to war with Putin's 2014 Russia is vastly more dangerous and substantially less likely to succeed than going to war with Saddam's 1991 Iraq.

That said, let's say it happened. Let's say the UN repeated its 1990-1991 pattern and passed a series of resolutions that were summarily ignored by Putin. Let's then say that a coalition of forces (mostly the US, of course) was deployed to push back against Putin's troops.

For the purpose of this discussion, I'll leave the ground, sea, and air war to the admirals and generals to plot out. Let's, instead, look at the cyberwar.

First, there wasn't much of a cyber force back in 1990 and 1991. The Internet was around, but only barely, and it certainly didn't underpin everything we do in society and it most certainly didn't connect virtually everyone on the planet.

The technological difference between the cyberwar arena now and the Gulf War of 1991 can be compared to the technological difference between the Civil War and World War II when it came to air battles. In the Civil War, there were no air battles. In the Gulf War, there were no cyber battles. In World War II, there were many famous and deadly air battles. In our as-yet-unnamed Ukraine war, there would most definitely be cyber battles.

Next up: Digital WMDs and Putin... 

By the way, I'm doing more updates on Twitter and Facebook than ever before. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz and on Facebook at

Topics: Security, Government, Government US


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Much the same occured to me

    I'm guessing that President Putin decided that the West won't actually go to war over Ukraine. All bets are off, though, as to what Ukrainians will do about the situation (I think Ukraine is headed down the path to civil war and has been for some time). The other interesting question is what Russia's intentions are. Public statements by Russian officials would indicate that neither annexation nor partition is deemed an option; and former President Yanukovich made a big enough fool of himself the other day that I don't think Putin is going to try to restore him. Perhaps Russia is merely trying to force a deal more favorable to its interests? Time will tell.
    John L. Ries
    • The Prince

      Putin has long struck me as the most able Machiavellian prince in the world today. I'm thinking that in the course of the next month we're going to see how good he really is.
      John L. Ries
    • Ukraine doesn't have the capability to

      fight back. Russia will install a puppet government, leave some troops there for stability, and then begin working bringing in their next satellite state.
      • Guerilla wars can be very bad

        Remember Vietnam? I know Putin remembers Afghanistan. It takes a lot of energy to maintain an unpopular regime through force alone, and even an unarmed population can be formidable if unhappy (that's how Gandhi fatally undermined the British Raj in India). At least Lenin and Stalin had a revolutionary ideology that captured the imagination of a lot of people, as wrong headed as it was. Putin has no such thing (he's merely a boss).
        John L. Ries
        • You are comparing apples and oranges

          John L. Ries wrote "It takes a lot of energy to maintain an unpopular regime through force alone, and even an unarmed population can be formidable if unhappy"

          You are comparing apples and oranges. Afghanistan is populated by people very good at staying independent. Just ask the British.

          The Crimea and eastern Ukraine are populated by ethnic Russians and Ukrainians who speak Russian as their first language and think of themselves as Russians/Soviets. Russian troops are being welcomed as liberators in the Crimea for the most part.
          • Eastern Ukraine is indeed pro-Russian...

            ...but western Ukraine (with most of the population) is not, which is the major obstacle to making Ukraine a Russian client. It doesn't do the Russians a lot of good to securely hold Sevastopol and Kharkov while having to constantly fight over Kiev and Lvov.

            And partition would definitely result in western Ukraine joining NATO and the EU, which it is very clear Mr. Putin absolutely doesn't want.
            John L. Ries
          • Ever realize that "Putin" is part is "Rasputin"?

            "partition would definitely result in western Ukraine joining NATO and the EU, which it is very clear Mr. Putin absolutely doesn't want"

            That is why the end game will be interesting. The Crimea is not returning to Ukraine because Putin wants the Black Sea port of Sevastopol. The only question is whether it will become:
            - a gray area, technically a part of Ukraine but run by Putin, just like South Ossetia and Abkhazia, with a real border between it and Ukraine,
            - a completely independent region kind of like Kosovo, but practically under the control of Putin, or
            - rejoined to Russia.

            Did you hear that Medvedev announced a new bridge to connect the Crimea to Russia proper, eliminating the need to travel through Ukraine?

            And events may overtake Putin. I could see a scenario where Russian nationalists take over eastern Ukraine just like Ukrainian ones have done to the west. Tensions flare to the point where people start starving or dying because of transportation problems. The country becomes de facto separated into halves.
          • He has the base already

            That's guaranteed by treaty. And even if the Ukrainian government were to become actively hostile, NATO isn't going to war to deprive Russia of a naval base it's held since the 19th Century.
            John L. Ries
          • Note that...

            ...the Soviets could have tried to force us out of Guantanmo Bay after the Communist takeover, but both Khrushchev and Brezhnev rightly decided it wasn't worth starting World War III over. Castro probably disagreed, but he was in no position to force the issue by himself.
            John L. Ries
          • Why can't we edit these posts?

            "Ever realize that 'Putin' is part is "Rasputin"?"

            Ever realize that "Putin" is part of "Rasputin"?
        • Agreed

          A lesson Russia has learned, yet we still have not. :(
    • No war

      America wouldn't even think about going to war with a country that could actually fight back, unless we were attacked first. Bullies often bully little people, but rarely bully people their own size.
  • Maybe there will be a hacker war

    Russia has very large hacker/malware writer communities, but so does the Ukraine, and the Ukraine's best hackers appear to be equal to the best the Russians have, so....this might indirectly benefit global cybersecurity if those two groups end up focusing on each other.
    • True...

      ...but I'm guessing that the FSB has its own publicly funded hacker corps (what happened in the midst of the invasion of Georgia would so indicate); I would suspect that the Ukrainian government doesn't have anything like that.
      John L. Ries
  • Double standards?

    I am not justifying the invasion of Ukraine, but there is not justification for the Iraq war and the millions of deaths and hardship it has caused.
    • Perhaps not...

      ...but it's kind of late to do anything about that now and one invasion doesn't justify others.

      As far as I can tell, nobody (even the Russians) seriously believes that Ukraine is a threat to its neighbors. An unrestrained Baathist Iraq surely would have been (but at the time of the invasion, Saddam's Iraq was quite restrained and mostly a threat to its own people).
      John L. Ries
      • Well...

        The Ukraine 'revolution' is funded by US and other European nations who supported the thugs who came to power thru street revolution. As Kerry put it, this is not 19th century and it applies to all parties.
        • There is no proof of that

          The US did not fund what happened in the Ukraine, that is rather insulting for the people who risked and some that lost their lives there protesting in the streets.

          Its simple economics, should the country aline with the EU or Russia? And even if it were to have aligned with the EU economically, why should Russia invade then?
          Rann Xeroxx
          • A Ukraine aligned with the EU and NATO...

            ...would not be a threat to Russian security per se, but would interfere greatly with any plans Mr. Putin might have for a Russian hegemony covering as much of the territory of the former USSR and Warsaw Pact as possible.

            And I think the Ukrainian population is genuinely divided on the issue, with the Ukrainian speaking areas being generally pro-western, while the Russian speaking areas are strongly pro-Russian (that at least is real). There may come a time when there is a consensus of public opinion behind Ukraine joining the EU and/or NATO, but it doesn't presently exist and isn't likely to any time soon. And without that consensus, a Ukraine conforming to the democratic standards of both organizations would be a very unreliable ally indeed. The good news is that a democratic Ukraine wouldn't be a very good ally for Russia either and we've seen plenty of evidence that an authoritarian pro-Russian Ukraine is very hard to maintain.
            John L. Ries
          • There is no proof of that

            Well actually there is ...

            Will McClenaghan