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Ukraine says Russian cyber attacks may constitute war crimes

Ukrainian officials are arguing that the recent Russian cyber attacks that targeted critical infrastructure and affected civilian lives could be considered war crimes.

user icon Daniel Croft
Thu, 12 Jan 2023
Ukraine says Russian cyber attacks may constitute war crimes
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The country’s Chief Digital Transformation Officer Victor Zhora has said that as Russia used these cyber attacks in support of their kinetic attacks, and those attacks targeted civilians, that Russia’s actions constitute war crimes.

“When we observe the situation in cyber space, we notice some coordination between kinetic strikes and cyber attacks, and since the majority of kinetic attacks are organised against civilians — being a direct act of war crime — supportive actions in cyber can be considered as war crimes,” he said.

Discussion surrounding certain cyber attacks being classified as war crimes is an ongoing discussion as cyber warfare becomes increasingly common on the modern battlefield. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has seen warfare enter a new era, where cyber attacks are the new missiles.

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However, a new digital battlefield means a whole new set of humanitarian regulations have to be developed to protect the wellbeing of non-combatants.

The Geneva Convention rules that attack against civilians can constitute war crimes under international humanitarian law.

The ruling that cyber attacks can constitute war crimes would be a first. Researchers have been asking since the beginning of the conflict for cyber attacks to be added to the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) investigations.

Russia has conducted several serious cyber attacks on Ukraine and its government and infrastructure, including DDoS attacks taking down telecoms and energy supplies, both of which affect civilians.

Zhora and Ukrainian officials from the State Service of Special Communications and Information Protection of Ukraine (SSSCIP) are now collecting evidence and sharing it with the ICC.

Instances such as the Russian attack on Ukraine’s largest private energy investor, DTEK, are being analysed and used to back their points.

“[DTEK’s] thermal power plant was shelled, and simultaneously, their corporate network was attacked,” said Zhora.

“It’s directed and planned activity from Russians, which they did both in [the] conventional domain and in [the] cyber domain.”

Officials from NATO have also suggested that cyber attacks could lead to the conflict escalating if they affected neighbouring NATO nations, arguing that it could call on Article 5.

Article 5 rules that if “a NATO ally is the victim of an armed attack, each and every other member of the alliance will consider this an act of violence as an armed attack against all members and will take the actions it deems necessary to assist the ally attacked”.

Whether cyber attacks qualify as an armed attack is yet to be determined.

Daniel Croft

Daniel Croft

Born in the heart of Western Sydney, Daniel Croft is a passionate journalist with an understanding for and experience writing in the technology space. Having studied at Macquarie University, he joined Momentum Media in 2022, writing across a number of publications including Australian Aviation, Cyber Security Connect and Defence Connect. Outside of writing, Daniel has a keen interest in music, and spends his time playing in bands around Sydney.

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