Digital infrastructure is strategic terrain

In today’s wars, combatants fight over digital infrastructure control
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When the Russian military invaded the Ukrainian city of Kherson in the spring of 2022, it quickly moved to control local internet access. Internet service providers were instructed to reroute traffic through a Crimea-based company connected to the Russian national provider Rostelecom

This was not the first time Russian forces had done so. Eight years earlier, when Russia seized Crimea, it also performed a step-wise digital annexation of Crimean cyberspace. With the internet filtered through Russian networks, the territorial annexation could be accompanied by tried and tested censorship and surveillance technology.  

Russia is not the only belligerent keen on controlling digital infrastructure. When the Houthis took over the capital of Yemen in 2014, they promptly went about expanding their control to the country’s internet. In response, the opposing Hadi government set up a competing Internet Service Provider (ISP) to signal their presence and credibility. 

Both examples suggest that the battle for control of digital infrastructure has become a vital part of modern conflicts. Similar to controlling roads and access to electricity, controlling a country’s digital networks allows conflict parties to signal their capabilities and claim to be the designated ruler. Where armed actors are fighting for political power and recognition, control of infrastructure (including digital infrastructure) can signal legitimacy through the provision or suppression of basic goods and services. When the Houthis took over YemenNet, they not only controlled the .ye domain, they also quickly changed official government sites to announce themselves as the legitimate government. 

Even if signalling legitimacy is not the main goal, physical control of a territory’s access to cyberspace brings several strategic advantages. When armed actors exercise significant control of digital infrastructure, they are far more likely to use cyber tools for strategic gain successfully. 

Conventional cyberattacks against foreign networks are notoriously difficult to a) keep secret, b) execute with enough power to make them effective, and c) time in a way that they become a useful part of a broader military campaign, as work by Lennart Maschmeyer, Nadiya Kostyuk, and Yuri Zhukov has shown. 

Once armed actors have managed to capture digital infrastructure, there is little need to keep their network infiltration a secret. Control of a network usually comes with the technical means to decide when and how to manipulate or cut access. It is also considerably easier to harvest vast amounts of data when detection is not a concern. And most importantly, control of digital infrastructure facilitates the planning and timely execution of cyber operations to support ground offensives. When we think about the effectiveness of cyber tools in conflict, we should pay special attention to the battle for who controls the physical networks. 

Controlling access, harvesting data

Several recent examples highlight how weaponising digital infrastructure has become a routine part of conflict. The Russian digital annexation of Ukrainian cyberspace is an example of its use in interstate warfare. In many other cases, infrastructure is weaponised during intrastate conflict. Whoever controls the network is likely to make use of it, for example shutting down access selectively or censoring content.  

When Myanmar’s military staged a coup in February 2021, it set about claiming the country’s networks, even before announcing their takeover to the public. In the night preceding the coup, armed officers reportedly raided the data centres of internet providers. A couple of hours later, the first connectivity disruptions were felt across the country. Within a few weeks of the coup, amidst growing protests, the military instituted ‘internet curfews’. These shut down access in the evening and night hours to prevent digital coordination and protest while allowing daytime business web usage. 

Weaponising digital access is now also part and parcel of larger military campaigns. On November 4, 2020, the Ethiopian government shut down all access to the internet in its northern Tigray region. On the same day, it commenced a military operation that, according to Human Rights Watch, included the indiscriminate shelling of urban areas and resulted in a humanitarian emergency. Because the Ethiopian government remains in de facto control of the country’s digital infrastructure, it was able to order and implement the internet shutdown to coincide with the start of its military offensive on the region. The communications blackout gave the federal forces an operational advantage over the local Tigray People’s Liberation Front by cutting off their ability to coordinate via mobile phones. It also obstructed the reporting and documentation of atrocities, prevented the efficient allocation of humanitarian aid, and cut off the local population’s ability to contact family and friends. 

Next to full or partial shutdowns, those who control the network have easy access to billions of data points that can help better understand the enemy, gauge public support, and engage in targeted operations. The Syrian regime’s weaponisation of their own country’s digital infrastructure exemplifies how control of networks supports offline, violent campaigns in wartime. I investigate the supportive role of network controls in my forthcoming book, including evidence from the Syrian conflict.

A state-affiliated service provider close to the Syrian regime dominates the country’s telecom sector.  As such, the government has routinely restricted internet access and done so in conjunction with military offensives. Syrian regime forces also use surveillance technology to support military offensives and provide information on dissenting individuals and groups that were previously hard to monitor. For more than a decade now, regime forces have targeted, arrested, and killed civilians, activists, and opposition fighters because of their online activity. 

Because control of digital infrastructure comes with powerful new methods to target, exploit, and censor populations, it has become a key battleground in modern conflicts. Discussions about the diversification of ICT sectors, the geopolitical implications of network controls, and the broader governance of internet infrastructure deserve more attention and need to become a standard part of conflict prevention, analysis, and resolution.