Microsoft President Brad Smith on the Russian invasion of Ukraine and ‘the world’s first hybrid war’

From left: Jevin West, Brad Smith, and Margaret O’Mara speak at a University of Washington event on Wednesday in Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Julie Emory)

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is happening not only by land, sea, and air, but through computers and the internet.

“We’re seeing the world’s first hybrid war,” Microsoft President Brad Smith said at an event in Seattle on Wednesday.

Earlier on Wednesday Microsoft released a report about the so-called hybrid war, detailing Russia’s cyberattack activity in Ukraine. The company has seen at least six Russia-aligned nation-state actors launch more than 237 operations against Ukraine. Microsoft said the cyberattacks appear to be “strongly correlated and sometimes directly timed with its kinetic military operations targeting services and institutions crucial for civilians.”

“The good news is that we have worked a lot with the Ukrainian government and with others to harden defenses and to respond,” Smith said at the University of Washington event. “But this is every bit as ferocious as the parts that are more visible.”

Microsoft said in its report that it believes Russia’s cyberattacks against Ukraine — which it estimates began as early as March 2021 — will continue to escalate.

Some of the methods used by actors are quite sophisticated, but sometimes they are “very simple,” said Jevin West, founding director of the UW’s Center for an Informed Public, who also spoke at the event. The actors are “always innovating,” West added.

Microsoft’s report highlighted different techniques used by the actors, including phishing, use of unpatched vulnerabilities, and compromising upstream IT service providers. “These actors often modify their malware with each deployment to evade detection,” the report said.

Microsoft President Brad Smith. (Microsoft Photo)

Attacks in cyberspace are not the only threat facing Ukraine and democracies around the world.

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“I think that disinformation in particular is really one of the existential threats to democracy,” said Smith, who wrote about these topics in his recent book, “Tools & Weapons: The Promise and The Peril of the Digital Age.“

Smith talked about how vaccine disinformation shaped the trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic. He encouraged the audience to reflect on how stopping disinformation could have changed the present as the U.S. approaches nearly 1 million deaths from COVID-19.

Smith noted comments from Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who has spoken about Russia’s vaccine disinformation campaigns.

“The Russians, even before this war, would use Ukraine as a testbed for harming the world,” Smith said.

Smith concluded the dialogue by encouraging students across disciplines to work together and bring the human-centered focus of humanities to technology.

“To be successful in the world today, everybody who is a liberal arts major should take a computer science class, a data science class, statistics, something like that,” Smith said. “Everybody who is majoring in computer science or engineering or math should take some humanities, some philosophy, some history, some economics.

“Get grounded in both because the future is really about how we bring both together.”

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