In addition to conventional warfare, it was recently confirmed by an arm of the Ukraine Ministry of Defense that it hacked trade secrets from a Russian state nuclear utility, and then leaked the trade secrets to a public website to harm the utility’s commercial prospects. Such “hack and leak” operations have been done before by nation-affiliated hackers to attempt to influence political activities of other nations, but this may be the first operation of this type concerning technical trade secrets during warfare. Although the economic impact from this particular operation may be difficult to gauge at this time, this hack and leak of nation state-affiliated company trade secrets may be a sign of things to come in future armed conflicts.

Ukraine Cyber Resistance

Recent reports indicate that the Ukrainian government has teamed up with groups of volunteer hackers; not to topple the infrastructure of Russia, but rather to demonstrate to Russia that they have a collective ability to perform overt acts of cyber resistance concerning Russian-affiliated companies’ intellectual property.

In a recent report, the Main Intelligence Department of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine (GURMO), together with a volunteer team of hackers, hacked into the Beloyarsk nuclear power plant to obtain valuable trade secret information on fast breeder reactor technology. This Russian nuclear power plant houses the only operating commercial-scale fast breeder reactor in the world. This technology reportedly significantly reduces, if not eliminates, the amount of nuclear waste from a nuclear power plant.  The Russian fast breeder technology, embodied in the Beloyarsk nuclear power plant, has been kept as a trade secret by the Russian state nuclear utility Rosenergoatom.

Due to a joint effort of the Ukrainian government and volunteer hackers, substantial amounts of technical data on the Beloyarsk nuclear power plant were obtained from a cyber breach of the plant’s computer systems, and thereafter made publicly available. These extraordinarily coveted, and some might argue invaluable trade secrets, are being disseminated to others outside of Russia as an act of war against Russia.

Cyber Resistance as Another Battlefront

It remains to be seen whether this new theater of cyber warfare involving hack and release of trade secrets will actually economically cripple a country or a state-run company. But it appears clear that the Ukraine-affiliated hackers are not going to stop with the Beloyarsk nuclear power plant. For example, there is a report that the same group of Ukraine-affiliated hackers have hacked into the Russia-affiliated Joint Institute for Nuclear Research (JINR) located in the Dubna, Moscow Region. Reportedly, there are plans to make this information publicly available as well.

Accordingly, the recent Ukraine-Russia conflict may demonstrate that a combination of land war and cyberattacks – including the hack and release of enemy countries’ state-affiliated corporate trade secrets – will be the new normal in future international armed conflicts.