In 2014, as Russia launched a proxy war in Eastern Ukraine and annexed Crimea, and in the years that followed, Russian hackers hammered Ukraine. The cyberattacks went so far as to knock out the power grid in parts of the country in 2015. Russian hackers stepped up their efforts against Ukraine in the run-up to the 2022 invasion, but with notably different results. Those differences hold lessons for U.S. national cyber defense.
I'm a cybersecurity researcher with a background as a political officer in the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv and working as an analyst in countries of the former Soviet Union. Over the last year, I led a USAID-funded program in which Florida International University and Purdue University instructors trained more than 125 Ukrainian university cybersecurity faculty and more than 700 cybersecurity students. Many of the faculty are leading advisors to the government or consult with critical infrastructure organizations on cybersecurity. The program emphasized practical skills in using leading cybersecurity tools to defend simulated enterprise networks against real malware and other cybersecurity threats.
The invasion took place just weeks before the national cybersecurity competition was to be held for students from the program's 14 participating universities. I believe that the training that the faculty and students received in protecting critical infrastructure helped reduce the impact of Russian cyberattacks. The most obvious sign of this resilience is the success Ukraine has had in keeping its internet on despite Russian bombs, sabotage and cyberattacks.
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