Lennart Maschmeyer is a Senior Researcher at the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zurich. He holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of Toronto and an MPhil in International Relations from the University of Oxford. Lennart’s research—and upcoming book—examines the subversive nature of cyber conflict, focusing on its operational challenges and strategic limitations. His second focus is on knowledge production processes in cybersecurity and its effect on threat perception.
Success and Failure in Cyber Conflict
The debate concerning the relevance and impact of cyber operations in the Russo-Ukrainian war has been highly polarized. Academics question the relevance and impact of cyber capabilities. Practitioners argue cyber operations have not only been highly prevalent in the war, but also very successful. This creates a puzzle. Both sides have evidence to support their claims. This paper argues this debate highlights the lack of a common concept of success or failure in cyber conflict and proceeds to develop a systematic framework to assess it. First, we identify two distinct levels of cyber conflict, technical and strategic, and establish a set of indicators for success and failure at each level. Next, we show that the secret and indirect nature of cyber operations produce a set of measurement challenges at each level. Then we combine analysis of both levels, examining how and why technical failures can still become strategic successes, and vice versa. Finally, we analyze how the measurement challenges we identified at each level, combined with these interactions among these levels, provide actors in cyber conflict with opportunities for deception and denial. Consequently, at least to some extent, success in cyber conflict is what states make of it—and that may be its key strategic value. We demonstrate the utility of this framework based on several case vignettes.