During the U.S.-German Futures Forum event, Data for Good: Tech Insight for Security and Democracy, at the 2023 Munich Security Conference, an intergenerational panel featuring experts from NATO, Google, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), and the Responsible Technology Hub (RTH), discussed the role of technology in Ukraine and how the private and public sectors are responding. Four important takeaways follow.

1. The conflict in Ukraine is a conventional war combined with new technologies

Following the February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, a largely traditional, mass conflict has raged across the country. Fighting at the moment is predominantly confined to the westernmost reaches of Luhansk and Donetsk. Many countries have since provided assistance to the Ukrainian military in the form of traditional weapon deliveries: Patriot surface-to-air missile systems, M1 Abrams and Leopard 2 tanks, and, as of last week, MIG-29 fighter jets from Poland and Slovakia.

But while the ongoing war has all the makings of a traditional one, a vast technological front has simultaneously played a central role in the conflict – and ushered in unprecedented involvement from private companies on the frontlines. Cyberattacks preceded and supported the initial Russian invasion, dismantling critical infrastructure and destroying communications networks.

Over the past year, foreign governments have largely provided financial, humanitarian, and military aid to Ukraine, while the private sector, mainly companies based in the U.S. and Europe, have answered Kyiv’s calls for technological support.

2. Private companies are deploying the most technologies in support of Ukraine

Phil Venables, Vice President of Google Cloud, and his team have been at the forefront of private sector efforts to support Ukraine. The company has deployed its Project Shield, a free denial-of-service (DNS) mitigation capability, while Google Mandiant instant response teams have helped Ukraine detect and counter Russian attacks while keeping critical infrastructure operating.

Per Venables, the company has countered “Russian disinformation on YouTube”, “detected and responded to deep fakes and other AI-generated constructions,” and has developed an app providing “air raid alerts on Android phones to let citizens have a chance of getting themselves out of the way of incoming attacks.”

Google is just one of many private tech companies and smaller start-ups active in Ukraine. Microsoft has granted Kyiv access to its cloud services, while its Digital Threat Analysis Center has provided reports tracking Russian disinformation and cyberattacks. German software company SAP has provided its own cloud services, software licenses for weapons systems, and access to SAP Ariba Discovery, a service that supports the supply of humanitarian aid to Ukraine. The involvement of private technology firms has been vital for Ukraine; however, the same involvement of the private sector has also revealed certain risks.

3. Starlink exemplifies both the benefits and pitfalls of private involvement

Just two days after Russian forces invaded Ukrainian Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Digital Transformation Mykhailo Fedorov tweeted Elon Musk requesting access to Starlink terminals. Overnight, it was granted. As Ukraine went dark, Starlink provided light with its satellite-based broadband system, far out of the reach of Russian invading forces.

This case exemplifies the benefits of agile, innovative private sector capabilities, not subject to the massive bureaucracies and decision-making structures that come with governments and other international organizations.

However, near the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion, Musk, who in October 2022 signaled his concerns over the costs associated with operating Starlink in Ukraine, again changed course, restricting Ukraine’s ability to power its drones using Starlink, citing his desire for the service not to be used for military means.

This decision highlights the risks associated with a monopoly of service. As Carisa Nietsche, an analyst working on transatlantic technology issues at CNAS, stated, “when a company provides so much of the infrastructure and Ukraine becomes solely reliant, the company has a lot of leverage.” She pushes for U.S. and allied governments to provide their own funding for Starlink capabilities, thus reducing the leverage Musk currently holds.

For the full panel discussion, which also focuses on US-EU data regulation, public-private partnership in tech, and the need for intergenerational dialogue and inclusion, please view below:

4. New efforts to improve public-private partnerships in technology and cyber

The war in Ukraine has showcased a longstanding difficulty: bridging innovative private networks and vast public bureaucracies in technology and cyber affairs. Hindrances to cooperation are further exacerbated by differing regulations on data sharing and varying classification structures.

To offset these challenges, NATO has created the Defense Innovation Accelerator, or DIANA, a new dual-use agency that brings together both the private and public sector to support the development of new technologies for the alliance. David van Weel, NATO Assistant Secretary-General for Emerging Security Challenges, who revealed the average procurement process at NATO lasts over 16 years, acts as the head of DIANA and noted that he sees the initiative “as a sort of a wormhole from the bureaucratic world with long procurement procedures into the world of fast innovation.”

On the other side of the Atlantic, the U.S. Joint Cyber Defense Collaborative (JCDC), housed under the Cyber Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), is a recently established U.S. government initiative that has also created a two-way protocol between the federal government and industry to improve information sharing and real-time threat analysis.

At the EU level, the recently enacted European Digital Services Act (DSA), which requires social media platforms to file reports on disinformation mitigation efforts, led TikTok in Europe to reveal an active Russian disinformation campaign following the invasion of Ukraine.

A vast array of new technologies have been deployed to Ukraine, ranging from the use of AI in translating intercepted calls from Russian soldiers to the use of facial recognition in finding the perpetrators of war crimes in Bucha. The challenge for governments, from van Weel’s perspective, is that it is difficult to keep abreast of these rapid technological developments and to determine how best to cooperate with the private sector in a way that benefits both parties.

DIANA and the JCDC are taking concrete steps to alleviate this challenge by building centralized structures for information sharing and innovation among allies and the private sector – as van Weel puts it: “instead of building it when the time comes.”

About the author

Brandon Bohrn works as a project manager for the “Europe’s Future” program at the Bertelsmann Stiftung. His work centers around U.S.-German and transatlantic relations. Previously, Brandon worked for the Bertelsmann Foundation’s transatlantic program in Washington, D.C.

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