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The Digital Age Of War: The Use Of Technology In The Russia-Ukraine Conflict – OpEd

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The ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine has entered a critical stage as a result of Russia’s declaration of partial mobilisation and its annexation of four Ukrainian regions. The nearly eight-month-long war has resulted in unimaginable destruction, a catastrophe for human life, severe supply-chain disruptions worldwide, which have led to rising maritime logistics costs, a food crisis, and inflation. A recession could start in a few nations by the end of this year or in 2023.

Digital technologies have made the first major war in Europe in the twenty-first century rather distinctive. While digital technologies have improved military equipment such as tanks, missiles, drone surveillance, unmanned aircraft systems, and sniper systems, the expansion of the internet and communications technology has made this battle uniquely sophisticated. Cyberattacks, deep fakes, the usage of social media, and the might of big tech have caused this conflict to be fought on multiple fronts. 

The last major war in Europe occurred almost eighty years ago. European leaders pledged to prevent another such calamity in the wake of the devastation they witnessed, and a new era of regional cooperation began in the 1950s. The Maastricht Treaty, which established the European Union (EU), was signed in 1992. The premise behind this cooperation was that as nations increased their commerce, they would grow economically dependent on one another. This, as Robert Schuman put it, would “make war not only unthinkable but materially impossible”.  Yet here we are in the twenty-first century, and Europe is entrenched in a messy war again. The EU is heavily involved in the crisis even though this war is being waged outside of its borders.

The origins of the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine are deeply rooted in the series of events that followed the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. While Russia had security worries due to NATO’s eastward expansion, Ukraine’s 2019 constitutional amendment that enshrined the country’s intention to join NATO was viewed as a further provocation by Russia, creating a flashpoint in the building deadlock. Ukraine, on the other hand, has said that it has the right to self-determination as a sovereign nation and that Russia’s actions violate the rules-based international order, its territorial integrity, and its sovereignty.

There have been reports of cyberattacks on businesses and organisations that provide vital information and supplies for this war. Manufacturing, commercial operations and power grids are being increasingly automated in the era of Industry 4.0. However, this also makes physical infrastructure that is cyber-connected vulnerable to cyberattacks. The attackers attempt to shut down the infrastructure, slow it down, or gain access to the data that has been stored. 

State-sponsored propaganda may confine its people to “information bubbles” in which they see mostly the narratives presented to them by the state. People in Russia, for example, hear a different story about the war than those in the west. Deep fakes, altered news, messages, and videos abound on the internet, all of which have the capacity to perplex anyone. Both Russia and Ukraine have accused each other of circulating false information. Russia has also taken steps to block YouTube and other social media platforms for allegedly providing a platform for “fake” content. Russia and the West continue their information war over who controls the narrative. The ongoing crisis has also sparked questions regarding the role of big tech – the companies that provide us with these social media platforms. Some reports indicate that these companies censor content they feel improper for public viewing. Truth must never be a casualty. All of this has sparked a discussion about whether big tech or the regime should regulate the media that the public consumes, or whether the people should determine for itself what to watch and what to avoid. 

NFTs and cryptocurrencies were used in the early stages of the war to collect donations to support war-related activities. Citizens in Ukraine are interacting via their smartphones and contributing on-the-ground facts and experiences, allowing the truth to emerge from war zones. The new and traditional media are progressively intertwining to present a more complete picture of the war. 

Malaysia and the ASEAN bloc have up to this point maintained a “neutral” stance on the matter. Malaysia has stated that it does not wish to get drawn into the conflict and has urged the international community to find a peaceful resolution to the crisis.

This conflict has exposed a profound scar in Eurasian geopolitics that had been smouldering for some time. Nobody knows how long this battle will last and what will be the final outcome, but one thing that has become evident is that the world order is in the process of realigning. In addition, this fight will go down in history as one of the first to make considerable use of cyber technology and social media, hence greatly contributing to the geopolitical realities that emerged as a result of the conflict.

Dr. Sameer Kumar, Associate Professor,  Asia-Europe Institute, Universiti Malaya, Kuala Lumpur

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