Ever since Russian forces started their all-out invasion in February, Ukraine has been hailed as an exemplar of how to defend against violent tyranny on the 21st-century battlefield. The country spun up an “IT Army” of volunteer hackers to take down Russian websites, used the Starlink satellite internet system to maintain communications as its own infrastructure was being destroyed and launched a social media blitzkrieg to win support from around the world.
By contrast, Russia’s leaders, despite having a far more powerful traditional army, have been stuck in the obsolete strategic thinking of the previous century. They were seemingly unprepared for the powerful, precise, Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drones that Ukraine has used to decimate Russian tanks and ships. Russian cybersecurity systems were frail too: Hackers who had signed up for the IT Army told me how they were continually launching distributed denial of service attacks against Russian websites, as well as posting pro-Ukrainian propaganda and news on sites Russia had not yet censored. These hackers weren’t master cyber warriors with black ops training, but teenagers and twenty-somethings in bedrooms and living rooms around the world. With Google searches and WikiHow articles, they learned the art of basic hacking in a few days. With a few weeks of practice, they said, they were able to punch through Russia’s weak defenses and its vast cloak of wartime censorship.
So, when I arrived in Ukraine in March, I wanted to understand how technology was reshaping war. I spoke to soldiers about how the use of drones had upended the balance of power with Russia. I talked to hackers about their successes and failures. And as the conflict wore on, I began to hear from Ukrainians about how their experience of the war has morphed from an intense and enthusiastic defense of the nation into long stretches of eerie silence, punctuated by moments of joy, fear, or panic with each new announcement of a Ukrainian or Russian advance.
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