13:36 02.12.2023

Ukraine takes part in largest NATO cyber defense exercises

4 min read
Ukraine takes part in largest NATO cyber defense exercises

Ukraine took part in the largest exercise in the history of NATO, the Cyber Coalition, which took place in Tallinn (Estonia) from November 27 to December 1.

NATO reported that in addition to the 28 member countries of the alliance, such partner countries as Ukraine, Georgia, Ireland, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Sweden and Switzerland took part in the exercises. Some 170 people worked directly in Tallinn and 1,300 around the world. The exercise scenario was based on real-life cyber challenges, including attacks on critical infrastructure such as electrical substations, power grids and water treatment plants, as well as disruption of NATO and allied assets during operations. The purpose of the exercise was to increase the resilience of NATO countries and partners to cyber threats, as well as their ability to conduct joint cyber operations.

In an interview with Interfax-Ukraine, the executive director of the exercise, Charles Elliott, commander of the U.S. Navy, said that directly during the exercise, Ukrainian representatives passed on information from the exercise plotlines to their colleagues. He detailed that, if the plotline of an exercise says that your power grid is under attack, we take that data and roll it out to a national training audience and say that this is what is happening now. In the plotline they are playing now, for example, there is no electricity in Kyiv. The local training audience is trying to figure out why this is happening. The point is that they are intermediaries between the training here in Tallinn and the Ukrainian training audience in Kyiv. And this allows them to build a network together. Thus, they base this exercise on three overarching goals. The first is collaboration, cooperation, coordination, the second is interoperability and the third is about experimentation. In addition, the scientific community and industry are involved in this, he added.

Asked whether the exercise participants had learned anything from the Ukrainian experience, Elliott noted that at the outset of planning for the exercise it was not known whether Ukraine would participate. Therefore, they did not plan specific lessons that could be learned from the Ukrainians. They had lessons of a more general nature, but not directly from Ukraine. As the commander of the U.S. Navy said, next year, since they had Ukraine this time, they will include more lessons that we could learn directly from Ukraine's experiences. What those lessons will be, Elliott can't tell exactly right now, and it would probably be wise not to go into too much detail for reasons of operational security. But suffice it to say, and as you know, in the real world, attacks on critical national infrastructure for Ukraine are constant. This is what preceded the invasion and continues throughout the conflict, this is how Ukrainian cyber defenders dealt with these attacks. Therefore, it is very important for us to look and make sure that other national training teams can learn these lessons, the exercise director stated.

At the same time, Elliott stated that what struck him most about the cyber component of the war that Russia is waging against Ukraine is the coordination of state and non-state actors when it comes to cyberattacks. According to him, from an attribution perspective, it's clear that it's easier to allow a non-state actor to take responsibility, if you will, for a cyberattack wherever it occurs. This gives some states a plausible objection "we didn't do this," he said.

As an example, the director of the exercise cited the activity of the pro-Russian hacker group, known for its attacks during the Russian invasion of Ukraine Killnet. They carried out various attacks that they claimed responsibility for, whether it was an attack on a NATO website or a power outage. It's hard to accept that this is just a non-state actor. Seeing the capabilities of some of these non-state actors, it makes sense that they would be supported elsewhere, Elliott said.

In addition, the NATO representative stated that the fact that Ukraine was again able to take part in these exercises shows the resilience of Ukraine. It's great to have them here and we look forward to learning more from them, they are excellent teachers, the exercise director concluded.

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