How Does War in Ukraine Impact the EU’s Digital Sovereignty?

Editors Opinions

The Russian war against Ukraine is changing the understanding of what it means to be sovereign in the digital domain. Technology is being deployed and shaped by both sides to transcend traditional dividing lines and change the terms of conflict. To become strategically autonomous, Europe must learn this new topography and ways to navigate it. Only then may Europe mitigate these new threats and prevail in new geopolitical challenges.

Paul Timmers, Research Associate Oxford University, Adjunct Professor European University Cyprus, Visiting Professor KU Leuven

Michał Rekowski, Researcher, Jagiellonian University

The Russian war against Ukraine is informing our understanding of what it means to be sovereign in the digital age. The first full-scale military conflict on European soil in decades, it is demonstrating the growing role of digital technologies in the realities of interstate conflict, as Russia sets out to destroy Ukrainian sovereignty.

To a level previously unseen, this war also highlights the crucial security dimension of modern technology – from commercial drones to digital infrastructure to social platforms. It shows that in a hostile context, every asset and every technology can be weaponised or creatively used to defend one’s sovereignty.

Europeans must adapt their mental maps accordingly and reconsider what technological assets and capabilities are ‘critical’ – those that should remain resilient and accessible if targeted, undermined or exploited by foreign actors. The war in Ukraine is providing many relevant lessons to the European Union, from the importance of e-administration platforms providing vital public services, to the availability of satellite-based connectivity, to a greater situational awareness of what’s happening on media platforms Europeans rely on for information. Europeans should also take note of key imported goods or services that might be withheld were sanctions imposed and that would be impossible or costly to replace.

We need to determine what elements of the digital domain we consider crucial building blocks of shared European sovereignty. Then we must begin efforts to strengthen these elements, demanding a set of common regulations and joint practices and regulations to be implemented across the EU. Some such initiatives are already underway, and the most recent have clearly been influenced by the war: the EU Strategic Compass; the EU Member States’ joint positions on cyber posture and digital diplomacy; and industrial policy actions driven by strategic autonomy, such as the EU Chips Act. The EU must maintain this policy momentum. Moreover, learning from the war the importance of transcending traditional divisions, the EU must ensure that these initiatives, even if they cover disparate domains and policy instruments, are coherent and reinforce each other.

Raluca Csernatoni, Research Fellow, Carnegie Europe

Is the war in Ukraine ushering in a new era of fighting on the cyber-physical battlefield? The answer is not a wholesale ‘yes,’ but rather that the specific dynamics of this war are unique. 

Aside from the Ukrainian military’s resilience in fighting Russian troops, the iconic weapons of the war have been the thousands of US-made anti-tank Javelin missiles launched by Ukraine. The Bayraktar TB2, an unmanned aerial vehicle that’s far cheaper than US- and Israeli-made drones (and also the subject of a catchy folk tune), has also achieved legendary status in the defence of Ukraine. Due to Russia’s widespread use of unencrypted communications, Ukrainian forces have also been able to take advantage of rapidly modified commercial AI-enabled transcription and translation services provided by the AI company Primer. SpaceX’s Starlink satellites have been crucial to Ukraine’s internet infrastructure, enabling timely intelligence on Russian troop movements, helping to speedily fend off Russian cyberattacks and keeping Ukrainian military communications networks operational. Ukraine has also been effective in waging the digital war by recruiting thousands of civilian volunteers to weaken Russia’s disinformation campaigns and by shoring up international support from tech companies to help counter Russian cyber operations.

What lessons should the EU learn from the Ukraine war that are relevant to its search for strategic autonomy, digital and otherwise? Besides having reliable strategic allies – to provide drones, AI, satellites and digital technologies – bricolage combinations of commercial and military capabilities are the recipe for success.  Costly, sophisticated weapons systems are not always better than inexpensive commercial high-tech solutions. This civil-military dynamic of the fight highlights the growing involvement of commercial tech in warfare, while also raising concerns about the risks of blurring the lines of armed conflict. The EU and its Member States should take note of such dynamics, especially in terms of assessing their security and defence strategies and prioritising critical strategic enablers.

The war in Ukraine has highlighted the paramount importance of EU-level instruments and projects in the case of dual-use capabilities. Yet, there is no quick fix to promote synergies between the civil and military domains and in critical technology areas. Instead, necessary steps include:

  • more consistent EU-wide coordination, to avoid fragmentation and duplication of efforts;
  • more joint research and innovation by the EU and its Member States;
  • increased incentives for civil and defence actors to work together; and
  • ambitious funding and regulatory instruments to achieve technological sovereignty.

Olesya Tkacheva, Research Professor, Brussels School of Governance

The war in Ukraine shows that strategic autonomy in the digital domain is impossible without sufficient technological capabilities.

As noted in the Digital Compass 2030, having a labour force capable of participating in the digital economy is one of the key pillars of the EU’s digital sovereignty. Brain drain from Russia’s IT sector has been one of the unintended consequences of the war in Ukraine, and it has the potential to enhance the EU’s digital sovereignty by increasing the share of the labour force with IT skills. Frameworks similar to those that allowed speedy integration of equally highly-qualified Ukrainian refugees into the EU labour market could be used.

The second dimension of strategic autonomy is the extraterritorial projection of the EU’s human-centric approach to digital transformations. The war in Ukraine accelerated the ongoing Balkanisation of cyberspace, led by China and other authoritarian regimes. The Kremlin has cracked down on internet freedom and banned Western social media platforms, at the same time rolling out Cyrillic-based internet. New geostrategic realities will contribute to further fragmentation of the internet, making it harder for the EU to leverage multinational approaches and build coalitions based on values. It may also undermine the architecture for internet governance, by increasing the likelihood of stalemates at multinational organisations including the United Nations, the OECD, UNESCO and others.

One way the EU might address these challenges is to leverage bottom-up approaches to internet governance that mobilise non-governmental actors and foster the extraterritorial diffusion of human-centric approaches to regulating the internet. At the same time, the EU could leverage coalitions of like-minded countries to buttress existing architecture, as in the recent Declaration on the Future of the Internet by the EU and international partners.

Andrea G. Rodríguez, Lead Digital Policy Analyst, European Policy Centre

The war in Ukraine will not change views on digital strategic autonomy in the EU. More than a hundred days into the Russian aggression, the lack of catastrophic cyberattacks does not represent a decrease in malicious activity in cyberspace, but rather signals the vital role that international collaboration and capacity building play in cyber resilience.

The war in Ukraine is already strengthening belief in the importance of having an up-to-date and comprehensive cybersecurity scheme in place. In that sense, it is unsurprising to see acceleration in the adoption of political agreements on the revised Network and Information Security Directive (NIS2) and the Digital Operational Resilience Act (DORA). But the war also emphasises the need to improve operational readiness, hence the proposals of closer collaboration and new cyber exercises in the Strategic Compass and the reflections on the EU’s cyber posture in the Council’s conclusions.

But above all, the war should help the EU mitigate strategic dependencies and work closely with the private sector to prevent adversarial actors from exploiting interdependencies in the provision of critical digital services and in access to critical digital infrastructure.

Izabela Albrycht, Chair of the Programme Committee, CYBERSEC – European Cybersecurity Forum

The cyber dimensions of Russian aggression against Ukraine and strategic competition between the US and China both highlight the strategic importance of tech companies in the geopolitical and economic puzzle.

Companies are now considered ‘supporting organisations’ for governments, thanks to their responsibility for the security of the digital realm and impact on states’ potential and strength in cyberspace – so-called ‘cyber power’. As such, business partnerships in the digital and cyber fields must be made with partners that are considered trustworthy in the dimension of national security. This will require alignment of the interests and geopolitical goals of both democratic countries and the tech companies ruling their markets. It provides a strategic opportunity for the development of trustworthy domestic cybersecurity and IT sectors, and thus for strengthening the digital strategic autonomy of the EU.

However, the new geopolitical circumstance demands a rethinking of the concept of strategic autonomy itself, in the context of security and defence challenges and threats. We need to accelerate the advancement of cyber resilience and development of cyber capabilities, but the EU cannot make it on its own. Strategic autonomy is certainly an important goal, but not an end in itself, and cannot mean breaking or weakening existing business partnerships to the detriment of national security. It will instead demand we strengthen cooperation with companies from transatlantic countries that guarantee our security within NATO, as well as with companies from like-minded countries.

Kamil Mikulski, PhD Fellow, NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence

The Russian war in Ukraine shows that information operations can be used to affect sovereignty.

Through the manipulation of foreign information environments, Russia is aiming to create conditions that will make it increasingly difficult for Ukraine to promote or defend its interests beyond its borders. Europeans should closely observe and analyse Russian actions. Although Kyiv does well in countering Russian operations in ‘western democracies,’ the Kremlin has now extended its efforts to the Global South. These efforts skilfully build on anti-colonial resentments by presenting the war as a Western-inspired proxy conflict. Russia increasingly uses outsourced ‘disinformation-as-a-service’ providers, making its efforts more decentralised and less concentrated. Malign actors can operate from anywhere: nowadays, Russian troll farms are frequently located in Africa. These developments may also affect the way Europe’s voice and image are perceived in non-European societies.

Europe should rethink its role in the wider world when it comes to countering hybrid warfare.

The first steps have already been taken. The Russian aggression on Ukraine coincidentally overlapped with the adoption of the Strategic Compass, a strategic security document. The high level of ambition demonstrated in the original version (leaked in late 2021) was not watered down – the war in Ukraine made it possible to keep them in the adopted document. The war has drawn greater attention to efforts to bolster societal and economic resilience and created a way to develop frameworks (toolboxes) to counter hybrid threats and disinformation – mirroring the EU Integrated Approach. The cyber component of both threat and resilience-building activities is explicitly recognised in the Strategic Compass.

These are important steps that should mark the beginning of a discussion on an integrated set of instruments for countering information operations and strengthening information resilience, both inside and outside Europe. These steps are necessary to allow Europe to act autonomously in world affairs.

Thumbnail Image credits: @Studio_OMG on @EnvatoElements


About the Author


Members of the Directions Editorial Board and invited experts contributed to this series of opinions.

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