The Russia-Ukraine war is causing some to rethink the role of offensive cyber operations in armed conflict

The impact of Russia’s offensive cyber operations against Ukraine appears to be muted. (Image credit: Juanmonino via Getty)

For some, the horror of the Russian invasion of Ukraine was also meant to mark the dawn of a new era in modern warfare: one in which degrading your enemy’s capabilities through cyberspace would play an important — perhaps even decisive — role in determining success on the real-world battlefield.

As militaries and societies grew ever more connected to and reliant on the internet to run, so too would the cyberspace domain grow in importance in combat, and nowhere was that supposed to be demonstrated more clearly than in Russia’s war, where their elite and well-resourced military hacking units could cut off Ukraine’s access to power, water and other essential resources, disrupt their communications, wipe out large swaths of private and public sector systems and data, and smooth the way for ground troops to dominate their Ukrainian counterparts.

In reality, the impact of offensive cyber operations appears to have been far more muted.

While the initial invasion did, in fact, come with a flurry of hacking campaigns against many of these targets as Russian troops crossed the border, the cadence of those campaigns have dropped markedly in the months following and have seemingly failed to provide Moscow with any meaningful advantage on the ground.

The experience has some U.S. observers advising that we collectively pump the breaks on the idea — formally endorsed by the U.S. military and others governments — that cyberspace is now a fully fledged domain of war, comparable to land, air, sea and space. That’s one of the chief conclusions reached by Jon Bateman, a former cyber specialist at the Pentagon who has served as an advisor to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the secretary of defense on military and cyber strategy, in a paper released shortly before the new year.

“I think it’s fair for U.S. military and NATO and others to define cyber as an operational domain. That can be a helpful doctrinal concept. I think where it becomes misleading is when military and civilian leaders then assume that cyberspace is as consequential or major as…