Kremlin’s Aggression Divides Digital Ecosystems Along Tech Trenches

The invasion of Ukraine prompted providers to cease operations in Russia, setting the stage for a different kind of conflict as bullets still fly.

Joao-Pierre S. Ruth, Senior Editor

March 7, 2022

4 Min Read
A demonstrator in a yellow jacket and blue scarf attends a vigil after Russian President Putin ordered invasion of Ukraine.
Leicester, Leicestershire, UK. 28th February 2022. A demonstrator attends a vigil after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine. Hundreds of people gathered outside the Town Hall to show their support to Ukraine.Darren Staples via Alamy Stock Photo

With the siege of Ukraine escalating with more invading troops, live ordnance, and machines of war rumbling forth, a technology trench is emerging that may reshape the digital landscape many industry-watchers thought was on the horizon. Companies such as Intel, SAP, Oracle, and AMD stopped shipments of their technology to Russia or halted their operations in that country as President Vladimir Putin pushed his forces farther into Ukraine. Meanwhile, cybersecurity concerns have also escalated as fears of hackers who may have already targeted Ukraine might turn their attention to other nations that opposed the war.

Sanctions to restrict international financial transactions and other commerce with Russia have already been put to work. Now that country faces the loss of certain technology services and resources as more tech companies seek to decouple themselves from the aggressor state.

As the grim war on the ground wages on, new lines of demarcation emerge in response across the digital world. The future of greater connectivity may look drastically different than expected, says Raj Shah, head of tech, media, and telecoms for North America at digital consulting firm Publicis Sapient. The first globalization was supposed be a singular, interconnected world, he says, but China emerged as a challenger to the United States and other economically allied nation states. Now Russia’s actions may further fracture the dynamics of the digital landscape. “There does appear to be this fragmentation that’s going to start to happen,” Shah says. “It does not appear that the idea of one truly, globalized world is going to happen.”

There may be some interchanges of information in buffer zones, he says, where some technology and commerce from opposing geopolitical spheres can intersect, but there will also be cordoned-off spaces. “Two or three years ago, we may have been focused on whether there would be a Facebook or Google version of this,” Shah says. “Now we’re talking about political viewpoint versions of these types of worlds.”

Human Cost of War

The human cost of war, where lives are lost and people are tossed toward uncertain futures, can also mean talent pools will be reshaped as battle lines continue to shift. “You have a large number of people exiting from Ukraine into Poland and Romania -- that’s going to put some stress on those local economies,” Shah says. As the potential for long-term impact takes shape, he says organizations that looked previously at offshore tech development talent in Ukraine may see some disruption. “I hope over the next weeks we’ll see some of those people relocated,” he says, allowing them to continue to be employed while recuperating emotionally and physically.

With the exit of companies such as Accenture from Russia, Shah is unsure what that means for local employees in the country. “You’d guess that Russian-native companies would pick those people up,” he says. “It’s a loss of a strong talent pool.”

Amid the upheaval and shifting digital borders, bad actors might also try to exploit opportunities in cyberspace for their own profit or in support of an aggressor state’s agenda. For now, threat activity is not unlike other times, says Paul Truitt, national cyber practice leader at accounting and consulting group Mazars US. “We’ve seen a couple things in Japan and some other European countries. We’ve seen some use of hacking-related activities from Russia against Ukraine,” he says. “We’re watching cyber threats as a vector for attack, but not necessarily anything different from non-war times from Russia.”

For example, Truitt says, Conti, a Russian hacking ring, may not be known to act on behalf of that country’s geopolitical interests. However, leaked chat sessions from Conti gleaned from the past two years raised concerns about the group’s potential actions. “That revealed some potential risk we’re seeing from Conti toward the US,” he says. “Any potential threatening behavior toward Russia, at least what they’re writing, would [lead to] direct retaliation against US organizations.”

Conti has already attacked US entities, including running a botnet network that caught the attention of the FBI and federally backed cybersecurity groups, Truitt says. Forthcoming threats might come in familiar forms such as ransomware, he says, which Conti and other Russian hacking groups have used. It is also plausible that supply chain attacks comparable to the SolarWinds hack might be launched, Truitt says. “If you want to attack large banking institutions or national infrastructure or an energy organization -- if you want to inflict harm on the US, the attack vectors are going to go against things that create panic.”

As Russia continues its aggression and becomes increasingly isolated, in the real world and on the technology front, it will not simply vanish in a digital sense as it may be impossible to excise the country from the internet as some individuals have called for. “It’s very difficult to think you could disconnect, in the world we live in today, an entire society based on physical location,” Truitt says, because location may not be relevant if supporters operate outside of Russia. “Shutting someone out of Google, AWS, or Azure and restricting based on source location is somewhat pointless and actually just agitates the potential behavior.”

About the Author(s)

Joao-Pierre S. Ruth

Senior Editor

Joao-Pierre S. Ruth covers tech policy, including ethics, privacy, legislation, and risk; fintech; code strategy; and cloud & edge computing for InformationWeek. He has been a journalist for more than 25 years, reporting on business and technology first in New Jersey, then covering the New York tech startup community, and later as a freelancer for such outlets as TheStreet, Investopedia, and Street Fight. Follow him on Twitter: @jpruth.

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