Created on:
April 4, 2022

Strategic Insights into the Ukrainian-Russian War: Part 5

Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has dramatically changed the International Relations landscape. It has also made nearly everyone who watches the news an armchair military strategy expert. The Policy Insights Forum (PIF), in partnership with SamuelAssociates, has decided to cut through the noise around the War by interviewing our top defence experts each week. This is a five-part series authored by Jay Heisler, a Policy Research Associate with the PIF who is currently volunteering on the U.S. side of the Ukraine evacuation.

This week, we will discuss cyber and intelligence strategy in a fast-moving conflict with Dave McMahon. Dave is a 30 year veteran of National Security, Intelligence and Defence with government agencies and commercial intelligence. Dave was able to break down the complexities of the War as it pertains to matters of the mind.  

There are three main takeaways from Dave's discussion with us. Those are competition in Cognitive Warfare, Cyber and Intelligence domains.

First, with Cognitive Warfare, Dave pointed to "misinformation and disinformation, Influence activities and propaganda," calling this side of the war "no holds barred." In a war in which both sides and their supporters have been unavoidably active on social media, and conventional media, there has been an unprecedented leap forward in our understanding of cognitive warfare.  

Dave explained that the Ukraine War is not just about governments. Dave pointed to Russia's "heavy use of proxies, including private military contractors to conduct Cyber, Cognitive and Physical Warfare. Western industry, non-government organizations, investigative journalists, private citizens, volunteers and vigilantes are decisively engaged.” 

Second, Dave said the same diversification could be found with Cyber Warfare.  

“We’ve seen pretty aggressive cyber-attacks by Russia and counterattacks by those supporting Ukraine,” Dave told us. “But also the amount of Non-State Actors, hackers for hire, vigilantes like Anonymous, etc."

Dave said it is important not to view the Russia-Ukraine cyberwar as a hockey game where one side is scoring more points.

"This was supposed to be a big cyberwar, but it’s not decisive,” Dave told us that you would be misled “if you’re trying to measure the size of the cyber conflict by the number of goals. There’s a lot of forechecking happening on the ice surface and penalties, just no game-ending scoring streaks.”  

Critical Infrastructures are complex. “Despite the best efforts of folks like the Russians to disrupt and interfere, sometimes systems don’t go down because they are either resilient or well-defended,” Dave added.  

Third, Dave said the war is speeding up the democratization and commercialization of intelligence in the intelligence domain.  

For Ukraine, commercial intelligence as a service has demonstrated the potential to deliver unique, tailored intelligence that is fast, precise, accurate and affordable to the fight.

"Folks in the U.S. have really opened up the amount of intelligence they've shared with the general public and with Ukraine," Dave told us. "We're getting a great deal of secret intelligence that was declassified in advance to deescalate things."

Dave said that when Russia plans something nefarious such as False Flag operations, “the Americans have been very quick to ‘out’ that so there isn’t a strategic miscalculation.” 

Similarly, U.S. intelligence agencies and the private sector have proactively countered Russian misinformation.

Dave called this an “unprecedented release of very good intelligence” from both the public and private sectors.

The author of this report can point to voices in the U.S. intelligence field who are pushing for the democratization of intelligence, such as Carmen Medina, a recognized national and international expert on intelligence analysis, strategic thinking, diversity of thought, and innovation and intrapreneurs in the public sector and Zachery Tyson, from the Office of the Secretary of Defense and Security Fellow at the Truman National Security Project. According to this new approach to Intelligence Studies, intelligence is no longer just for the leader but for the whole organization and population.  

Dave agrees with this assessment.  

"You can have a piece of Secret Intelligence, but if you just keep it secret and never use it, it goes stale," Dave told us. "I think the Americans realize you have to share it, realize its true value, and share it with non-traditional partners."

Dave concludes by saying that if you want the public to benefit from intelligence, you have to share it with them as well. 

This concludes the five-part series, Strategic Insights into the Ukrainian-Russian War. Supplemental articles will also be published to highlight the ongoing conflict from various international subject matter experts, scholars and those personally affected by the War in Ukraine.

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