The Role of Cybersecurity in the Russia-Ukraine WarRussia Researcher Chris Miller on Overestimating Russia and Underestimating Ukraine
Since launching a war against Ukraine in February 2022, Russia's economy has contracted and it has made efforts to shrink the economies of Ukraine and Western allies. But "Russia's military has underperformed" says Dr. Chris Miller, an associate professor of international history and author of books about Russian history. He says Russia and the West have both overestimated the country's ability to "use its capabilities in effective ways."
"We've underestimated Ukrainian capabilities," Miller says. In terms of cybersecurity, he says, "the Ukrainian defenses and faulty Russian offensive systems" are the reason why "there haven't been any highly successful ... cyberattacks against Ukraine."
In this episode of "Cybersecurity Unplugged," Miller discusses:
- Ukraine's successful efforts to improve its cybersecurity;
- The cybersecurity challenges facing the U.S. and how education is having a positive effect on defenses;
- The "critical and irreplaceable role" the U.S. plays in providing the software and tools that make the tech sector possible.
Miller is an associate professor of international history at The Fletcher School at Tufts University. His research has focused on Russian history, politics and economics, and he is also the author of "Putinomics: Power and Money in Resurgent Russia" and "We Shall Be Masters: Russian Pivots to East Asia from Peter The Great to Putin."
Steve King: [00:13] Good day, everyone. This is Steve King. I'm the managing director at CyberTheory. Today our podcast features Chris Miller, who's associate professor of international history at The Fletcher School at Tufts University. Chris is a doctor and his research has focused on Russian history, politics and economics. He is also the author of "Putinomics: Power and Money in Resurgent Russia" and" We Shall Be Masters: Russian Pivots to East Asia from Peter the Great to Putin." Welcome, Chris. I'm happy you could join us. I think last spring, you had mentioned that the Russian economy was like the 11th largest in the world, it now appears that it may shrink to 5% or less this year. Is this a consequence of a war in which oil and gas has become weaponized and Ukraine has stood up surprisingly strong in the face of the Russian military? Or is it an indication that Russia's military is not as strong as we suspect or project?
Chris Miller: [01:43] I think both dynamics are true. Russia's military has underperformed, certainly its own expectations, but also the expectations of most analysts outside of Russia for a number of reasons, partly because I think there was some overestimation in terms of the capabilities of Russia military system, but I think a lot more important is the extent to which both Russia and external observers overestimated Russia's ability to use its capabilities in effective ways. Things like command and control or backward planning are difficult to assess in the abstract. They've worked in prior wars and project that forward. But the real difficulties Russia's faced in a lot of the soft spheres, whether it's planning, logistics, command and control, morale, or something that there were some indications of, but have been surprising, the degree to which they automatic. Next to that, there has also been the economic war, is what I call it. Russia has been blockading Ukraine, trying to drive down living standards in that country and reduce support for the war. The West is doing something similar to Russia by dramatically restricting Russia's interconnections with international financial system and the goods that can be imported by Russia as the Russia's imports have fallen by around half compared to pre-war levels. Finally, Russia has retaliated against the West by trying to drive energy prices, most notably the price of natural gas in Europe, but also more generally, its exports of oil and coal. There are some restrictions, and the prices of those have gone up as well. Each party is trying to hurt the other economically, even as the war continues on the battlefield. And the fact that none of the sides have been able to score, what you might call a knockout blow this far means that the conflict looks likely to continue for at least the next couple of months, because the Russian demands were still quite large for a big chunk, Ukraine territory, and Ukraine looks highly unwilling to give any territory up. In that context, it's hard to see an easy way out.
King: [03:51] Prior to this war, just as an aside, Ukraine didn't have a great reputation in the West. Didn't we, we meaning the West, generally look upon that country as being somewhat corrupt?
Miller: [04:08] It's interesting, I think that is an accurate description of how the U.S. and European countries, and certainly also Russia looked on Ukraine, in hindsight that there certainly were plenty of corruption issues in Ukraine beforehand. But I think that missed the bigger picture in Ukraine, which was that although the political class was in many ways corrupt, the Ukrainian society was relatively united around a number of key questions and even those was the importance of Ukrainian identity and the desire for territorial integrity. I think a lot of the foreign emphasis on corruption issues and on things of that nature missed the big story, which is that Ukraine was a real nation that wanted its territory under its control, rather than the control of an outside power and that would be by far the more important factor than any corruption issues that were faced. We underestimated that in the West who very clearly underestimated the strength of that feeling as well. If you ask yourself, why is it that the Ukrainians were able to rally around their political leadership of president Zelensky and rally around the military in the early days of the war, it was because that national feeling was quite strong, far stronger than most outsiders expected it to be. In hindsight, that's the key back to the Ukrainian politics, it's that national feeling, that Ukrainian national identity rather than corruption issues, which is a lot less important.
King: [05:40] Zelensky is a good actor too. I wasn't implying in any way and I should have qualified that the people - the Ukrainians themselves - were corrupt. When I say that, I would say that about every country on the planet, that it's always the folks in charge, the administrators, if you will, the Congress, the Senate, the bureaucrats that run the country that is where corruption normally is found. That's all I meant. Yet, if you look at some of the footage that we've seen with the Putin interaction under Obama, with administrative leaders, at the time, there was a lot of yadda yadda going on with probably not the best look for them. We talked about sanctions on both sides and this push and pull or I'll do the sanction you do that sanction kind of thing. Are these having an effect on the oligarchs at all? Are they putting increased pressure on Putin to act in some way? Because from my point of view over here, it looks like Putin is getting very wealthy in the process. I'm wondering how effective these things are, what do you think of the longer term effect on the individual players involved here, not the longer term effect, if this continues, the way it's going is a lot of people are going to starve and freeze to death?
Miller: [07:21] I think in terms of understanding how the Russian political system functions, I think in the West, we've overestimated the role that oligarchs play relative to the use of the security services. The reality is that if you're a business owner in Russia, you're highly unlikely to go to President Putin or any political leader with the demands about foreign policy or any high political issue because if you get on the wrong side of Kremlin, you might lose all your assets, end up in jail, and exiled or even dead. Because of that the oligarchs, although they make great news stories, and they have fancy yachts, and often scandals associated with them, they're not players at all in Russian foreign policymaking. Insofar as people in the United States and in Europe have hoped that targeting them would somehow change Russian foreign policy. There's no evidence that they've worked in the past. It's hard to understand what the mechanism would be going forward. They're all trying to keep their heads down, stay out of politics, because they're afraid their assets are going to get confiscated, either to hand to one of Putin's friends, or to this point to use in the war effort. So the key question, I don't think isn't: are the oligarchs worse off and what do they think about the war? I think the key question is: is the Russian government having a harder time balancing its domestic political constraints and has got to keep pensioners happy and pensions declined dramatically, people get angry about the future state of employees' happy salaries decline. Now it's got an expensive military operation to fund and doing all this in the context of a shrinking economy all of the sanctions have been imposed can be taught. That is the key balancing act with sanctions made more difficult, but it's not about the oligarchs, per se. It's about the overall Russian government budget and the overall balancing act politically for the Kremlin.
King: [09:09] This Nord Stream gas line that just blew up. There are folks around the world that suggest that Putin ordered this strike way. I struggle to find the logic in that. Do you have some insight as to why if he did that, why he would have done such a thing?
Miller: [09:34] It does seem like the Russians have the most plausible culprit in a number of countries with the capability to launch three, basically simultaneous attack pipeline. So far underwater is not large. The Russians had a lot of ways they could do it. Most of the countries don't. We know the Russians have substantial submarine capabilities, not only in terms of traditional submarines, but also in terms of Naval Special Forces. I think there's a lot of reasons. In fact, it is the Russians, I think the rationale would be, they're saying to the west, we're going to keep escalating the costs on you, take more and more risky moves, and we're committed, we're going to do anything to win the war, even blowing up our own pipelines, which were intended by Germany with gas. Of course, they weren't supplying anyone with gas right now. They weren't like to in the foreseeable future. But I think that gives you a sense into the way the Russians are trying to signal their willingness to bear costs. Right now Putin is indeed embarked on a very costly strategy for Russia. Mass mobilization is going to be the defining decision of his political career. Whether it turns out to being an effective warfighting effort remains to be seen, but he's bet everything on winning this war. That's what he's trying to make through the rest of the world. He's saying, I will not surrender. You better be prepared to make concessions first. That's the message we're trying to get across.
King: [10:52] He's getting that across. What happens in your estimation if he succeeds? What does he do next?
Miller: [11:01] First off, I think it's perfectly they've got a pathway towards success, except for Russia means getting the Ukrainians to admit that Russia controls 20% or so of Ukraine's territory. It's very difficult to see a pathway by which Ukraine would agree to that. Certainly, within a couple of months, where we have some visibility as to how the situation will develop. Ukraine is highly unlikely to agree to anything along those lines.
King: [11:26] Unless I'm cold and hungry.
Miller: [11:28] The Ukrainians have already suffered a whole lot over the course of this war. I don't think one winter is going to be enough to induce turtle concessions. You look at the polling in Ukraine, the latest polling and obviously, we should have a lot of caveats or any wartime poll, but something around 90% of Ukrainian think they are going to win the war and 90% are opposed to any territorial concessions. That gives you a sense of where the Ukrainian populace is on these issues. Which means that victory for Russia is highly unlikely in the short term. If it happens at all, it's going to be only after imposing math on the Ukrainian population over a long time. But I, I think the Russians have a really hard pathway ahead, because they've bungled the war so dramatically, in the first seven months now, because they've used up a lot of their initial military potential, and poorly designed operations that were badly executed, because now it's not at all clear which society is more willing to bear long war. Ukrainians very clearly know what they're fighting for. They have fewer resources than the Russians, they have much more consensus about the goals of the war. Russia than more resources, they have much less consensus about this operation, which started as a special military operation in Russian parlance, and only now is beginning to move towards something that is admitted to be more like a war. And I don't think we have anywhere near the level of consensus in Russian society about what the point of this conflict is and be willingness to bear costs to achieve territorial gains.
King: [13:00] How badly does he need support of the Russian people though?
Miller: [13:04] He doesn't need the support of every Russian but he certainly needs support of the rest of the political League, others in the security services, the military elite, the provincial political leadership, if the rest of the league turns against him, his political position is weaker, and the risk of a palace coup is higher. I wouldn't predict that to happen, you know, this week or next week. But I think if the military situation gets worse, if the mobilization continues, in its current, pretty haphazard state, it's impossible to rule out the prospect that others in the Russian elite say, "Hey, this guy has really lost the plot on what Russian foreign policy ought to look like." Whether or not you agree with his aims that are coming out a lot of people in Russia who agree with Putin games and trying to dominate Ukraine, it's not very effective. That is like a risk going forward for Putin that if he keeps fumbling different parts of the war, that although the early stages of the war bungled the campaign in the Donbass this summer, and now it's bungling mobilization, it's harder for him to keep the support of the elite and more plausible to imagine ways that a faction of other elites might try to move to push it up.
King: [14:21] Many in our community have wondered about whether Putin is going to execute a cybersecurity strike against Ukraine. There are a lot of ways he could do that. There's no evidence that he has so far. Can you explain why you think that hasn't happened and whether you think it will?
Miller: [14:47] We do know that there have been a fair number of cyberattack against Ukraine and companies like Microsoft have released detailed reports outlining what they've seen thus far. I think we haven't seen a hugely successful cyberattack against Ukraine. I think there's a good argument to be made that Ukraine, although it was very vulnerable a decade or so ago, because of the cyberattacks that received from Russia over the past decade, it's been a real focal point of cybersecurity efforts since then. And the fact that major western tech companies and the cybersecurity companies have been investing so heavily in Ukraine in recent years. Also, since the start of the war, suggests in some ways that actually Ukraine might not be nearly as vulnerable as it used to be to Russian cyberattacks, because they've varied more than anywhere in the world. I think part of the story ought to be attributed to Ukrainian defenses. Like the rest of the war, I think we've underestimated Ukrainian capabilities and overestimated Russian capabilities. On the Russian capability side, what the question is whether Russian capabilities were as substantial as we thought before the war. And, you know, I don't have any sort of inside scoop on this, I'm sure U.S. intelligence is trying very aggressively to figure out whether Russia is holding back on the cyber front or whether Russia is trying and just failing. But it does seem like perhaps our general rounding down of our estimates of Russian military potential ought to apply the cyber sphere as well. So I will be skeptical of the story were predominantly about Russia holding back, because they haven't hold back in very many other spheres. It seems to me that when you look at their operations on the battlefield and Ukraine's success on the battlefield, there's more reason to think that Ukrainian defenses and faulty Russian offensive systems have more to do with explaining why there haven't been any highly successful, many highly scalable and highly impactful cyberattacks against Ukraine.
King: [16:48] Yeah, perhaps Ukraine is better at defending than we give them credit for gave them credit for that we've had an interesting series of exchanges between Putin and G in China lately that have caused some folks to wonder whether the CCP are certainly not as cozy with Russia as they were earlier. Can Russia accomplish whatever it is they're trying to accomplish here without China's help? And then what is China's incentive with Russia? Either way to support or break from, from Russia?
Miller: [17:24] I think that our China has been rhetorically supportive for most of the war, blaming the West for the conflict, for example, but it hasn't done much to help Russia actively. It's certainly continued to trade with Russia in substantial ways that hasn't gone out of its way to help us economically, but it hasn't certainly joined any of the sanctions the West has imposed, either. I think the Chinese have some ability to influence Russia's thinking on the war. The fact that the most recent Xi-Putin summit did not result in a lot of Chinese rhetorical support for Russia. I think it was interpreted within Russia as a sign that Putin's international standing is weakening yet further, it's not just that he lost the last losing some of the countries that were previously much friendlier, like China, and also India and Turkey. But ultimately, the key factor in shaping the war is not going to be what China does, or what any other country does. But what conditions in Russia look like. That is the key question that determines when this war is likely to end and on what terms and although Russian elites will be looking to some extended other powers, their predominant question is going to be how can they keep holding on to power at home? What is their best strategy going forward as we continue to war or try to end it and, and regroup without a war going on? I would look much more at that, I think, then I would have viewed in Beijing that they do filter into the Russian political process in some way.
King: [18:54] Do you think Putin is capable of using a nuclear device on just purely on offense as he's threatened?
Miller: [19:03] I think you certainly can't completely exclude the possibility. But I will say that I think it sounds not that plausible. If you think of that scenario, in which it most likely, I think it's a scenario in which Russia is doing badly on the battlefield, if it loses more territory, for example, in the Donbass or elsewhere, I think that's the scenario in which nuclear use is most plausible. But that's also a scenario in which the Russian military is going to be looking at the territory they're losing and saying Putin is going to be around for a very long time. In all of the scenarios in which Russia loses territory, the risk of a coup goes up, and the likely duration of Putin's time in power, I think goes down. I suspect there are some real command and control issues in the Russian military that would emerge immediately upon an order to even consider their planning for nuclear usage because the rest of military leadership is going to be thinking about its own personal interest as well as Putin's interest. If they know they'll be held personally accountable, or they'll be worse off, having used them to grow up, and especially for a leader whose time in power looks like it's eventually coming closer to an end than otherwise and seemed. I'm not so sure we should think that the Russian military would be willing to carry through that order. We don't know, it's impossible to know. If I'm calling into question the Russian military is willing to carry out that order. I think Putin might be as well, which probably provides a further disincentive for actually going in that direction, because there would be nothing more devastating to his hold on power domestically, if he ordered such a dramatic escalation in the military simply refused to execute.
King: [20:39] That would equate to a coup, would it not?
Miller: [20:44] Pretty much and that's, I think, why he's got to be pretty nervous. With the Russian civil military relations right now, you know, the reality is, they've got to be pretty tense. Putin started a war, the military wasn't given proper time and space to plan for many, even fairly senior officers. The teams were unaware that a war was about to happen until they were marching or driving across the Ukrainian border. Since then, according to U.S. intelligence, the U.S. media who has been involved in the granular details of wartime planning, and evidently done not a great job of it. I got to think that the relationship between top generals and the Kremlin is already fairly strained. I think if I were Putin, I'd be trying to manage that very carefully because of this small number of groups that could plausibly help push Putin out of military, it's certainly one of them.
King: [21:36] I wanted to ask you about education, you've made a serious investment both in time and money and attention and mindshare, to education, both for yourself and for the environment in which you work. Some of us look at our adversarial situation in cybersecurity and conclude that we're hopelessly behind, at least from an education point of view and on all levels. That inattention has widened the gap between the skills that we need and those who we don't have. In fact, some feel, myself included, that it's so bad now that it's going to require some kind of Manhattan style project to reverse this current direction. What are your thoughts about digging out of the hole that we're in?
Miller: [22:46] I think it's hard in some way to really measure the efficacy of different systems. I think if you look at cybersecurity, on the one hand, the U.S. faces tremendous challenges with all of the cyberattacks that make the headlines and the difficulties we face in securing whether it's governmental systems or corporate systems or any type of systems from cyberattacks. On the other hand, if you look at the tech sector, more generally, the story for the U.S. is quite positive. Education has to do with that. One thing we can discuss the topic of my new book on the semiconductor industry called Chip War: The Fight for the World's Most Critical Technology. One of the things of that book illustrates that the U.S. still has a critical and irreplaceable role in the foundational technologies that make the rest of the tech sector possible, whether it's the software you use to design chips, machine tools, you produce them. When I look at that picture for the tech sector, which is critical, not just for talking about the overall economy, the U.S. looks a lot better off than indeed, when you compare that to Russia, which is putting U.S.-made and U.S.-designed chips in his own missiles, because it's so far behind. That just illustrates the enduring advantages the U.S. has. I think that applies to China as well. China spends more money importing semiconductors than it does importing oil. One of the things that I was struck in researching for Chip War book was the extent to which of all the chips that China's importing. Basically, all of them depend on U.S. technologies. They're made in the U.S., they're designed in the U.S., and they're produced with U.S. tools and software. I ended up worrying a little bit less about the education picture, not that I disagree with you that there's a lot of work to be done. But I think the results of the U.S. system are also surprisingly strong and durable over time. I think that magnification is a good example that you made something that stood out to me when I was writing for.
King: [24:46] I appreciate that. I think you're right for that specific sector. We're going to have to figure out how to get there for cybersecurity. However, that train continues rolling down the track and I'm concerned about it. That's why we've developed our own online training facility. We're launching that in the next quarter. I hope that we're able to do that in time. Give me the name of your new book.
Miller: [25:23] It's called "Chip War: The Fight for the World's Most Critical Technology."
King: [25:29] Chris Miller, Ph.D, Tufts University, I appreciate you taking the time to share your view on all of this. It's mostly foreign to most folks that are in our audience, but they're also interested in and hungry for some authoritative thought leadership on the topic. I think that's what we got today.
Miller: [25:58] Thanks for having me.
King: [25:59] hanks to our audience, for taking the time as well. Hopefully you got a great takeaway today, and we'll look for you next time. This is Steve King, your host, signing off.