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Podcast 🎧 & blog: Cyber defence in the time of war

25.10.2023 | Federico Plantera

Crucial distinctions exist between cybersecurity and cyber defence – even more so, at times when war and conflicts seem ever-present in news headlines from all around the globe. It is only fair, then, that governments look into enhancing their cyber defence capabilities and adapt plans and policy agendas to fit a constantly changing threat landscape.

Merle Maigre, Head of the Competence Centre on Cybersecurity at e-Governance Academy, joins us in this closing podcast of the cybersecurity month. We explore how war has already changed governments’ attitudes and priorities in national cyber defence strategies, and what international expertise can do to assist at-risk countries.

Differentiating cybersecurity and cyber defence

There are differences, indeed, between cybersecurity and cyber defence – so let’s clear that out. Cybersecurity, Maigre explains, encompasses a comprehensive range of measures aimed at preserving the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of digital information. The core principles are grounded in what is often referred to as the CIA triad, focusing on safeguarding data. It’s a multifaceted discipline that involves not only government bodies but also the private sector, civil society, and academia.

In contrast, cyber defence takes on a more military connotation, with its primary responsibility being the defence of a nation’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and constitutional order. This distinction offers a foundation for understanding how government priorities are evolving in response to war, in Ukraine and beyond.

Changing government priorities following the war in Ukraine

But it does pay to look into how Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, specifically, has changed the cyber threat landscape, as it brought about a series of challenges that influenced government actions in the field of cybersecurity.

“The war in Ukraine has also impacted the wider cybersecurity scheme. It has messed up the cybercrime groupings in Europe and made them more active, resulting in increased attacks,” Maigre notes. The impact of what is taking place in Ukraine extended well beyond the border of the country, affecting nations in the Caucasus, Eastern Partnership countries, and the Western Balkans. And the increase in cyberattacks we have witnessed, necessitated a shift in government agendas.

As a result, countries began to invest more heavily in their cyber defence tools and strategies. Cybersecurity, too, received renewed attention from various stakeholders. This latter, wider focus became vital not only for military actors but also for government bodies, the private sector, civil society, and academia. But early takeaways do help us pinpoint some key understanding emerging from the experience of the past months.

The importance of early and proactive cyber defence preparations, the necessity for flexible institutional adaptation, and the value of external support – all makes for an effective cyber defence ecosystem. War scenarios demonstrate that preparedness and adaptability are key when facing cyber threats. And the evolving threat landscape, consequently, requires governments to be nimble and ready to counter cyberattacks effectively.

Addressing concerns through proactive projects

Readiness, though, cannot be prepared overnight. Which is why government agendas list as well proactive projects aimed at addressing concerns related to cyber defence and cybersecurity. In Eastern Partnership countries and the Western Balkans, efforts have been directed at improving cybersecurity governance models, raising awareness, enhancing crisis communication.

Such projects, in collaboration with international organisations and partners like the e-Governance Academy, aim to address concerns, but also help build an international network providing at-risk nations with the necessary support to complement their own tools.

For example, Maigre highlights, sharing information and intelligence becomes crucial, in the context of threat analysis and response. The readiness to collaborate and share with other government agencies or allies is critical to building collective resilience against cyber threats. Next to that, training programmes and practical exercises allow countries to respond effectively to cyber incidents and assist these nations in strengthening their technical and operational capabilities.

Aligning to EU standards, with membership in sight

To this end, the European Union too has increased its focus on supporting the Western Balkan and Eastern Partnership countries in enhancing their cyber defence and cybersecurity ecosystems. An element to not easily dismiss, as it stems from the anticipation of an imminent wave of the European Union (EU) enlargement.

More than a few countries in these areas are likely to receive the EU membership invitations in the near future. It fits well, in this landscape, the necessity for candidate states to be prepared to meet the EU standards and practices across all domains, including cybersecurity.

The impact of the war in Ukraine has been profound on cybersecurity and cyber defence. And all governments, consequently, now recognise that cybersecurity and cyber defence are intertwined, requiring a holistic whole-of-societyapproach. War might have acted as a catalyst, but the emphasis – in and outside of a conflict scenario – must always lie on key elements that can make our cyberspaces safer. Proactive defence strategies, institutional adaptability, inter-agency, and international cooperation.

The e-Governance Academy collaborates with the government of Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North-Macedonia, and Serbia to enhance the cyber resilience of the countries by improving cybersecurity prevention, preparedness, and response of relevant public and private stakeholders. The activities are supported by the European Union. Find out more https://ega.ee/projects