WASHINGTON — NATO will establish a program to quickly respond to cyberattacks and other malign activity in the digital domain, while pledging to boost Ukraine’s cyber defenses amid relentless Russian attacks.

The creation of the “virtual rapid response cyber capability” was included in a June 29 declaration from NATO heads of state and other governments participating in a high-profile summit in Madrid.

The program is voluntary and relies on existing assets, the alliance said. The U.S. will “offer robust national capabilities” to support the cooperative, which is using lessons learned from the Russia-Ukraine war to tailor its methods, according to a fact sheet put out by the White House.

The U.S. has in the past dispatched cyber experts to countries to identify threats and strengthen networks abroad. The so-called hunt-forward operations are done at the invitation of foreign partners or allies.

NATO plans to bolster its own cyber defenses through increased civil-military cooperation and expanded partnerships with industry, according to the declaration.

“We are confronted by cyber, space, and hybrid and other asymmetric threats, and by the malicious use of emerging and disruptive technologies,” the document stated. “We face systemic competition from those, including the People’s Republic of China, who challenge our interests, security, and values and seek to undermine the rules-based international order.”

The new cyber response initiative comes after months of Russian cyberattacks on Ukraine — meant to sow chaos and soften resolve — and amid worries U.S. critical infrastructure and businesses are next on the list. Moscow may resort to increasingly aggressive cyberattacks if its war machine remains stalled, according to Neal Higgins, U.S. deputy national cyber director for national cybersecurity.

International authorities in May blamed Moscow for a cyberattack on Viasat meant to paralyze Ukrainian command and control in the early hours of its invasion. While the hack did not hurt the company’s stateside government clients, it did knock offline internet service for tens of thousands of people and spilled out of Eastern Europe.

NATO members intend to step up support for Ukraine, including efforts to promptly get non-lethal equipment into the besieged country. From December to February, U.S. Cyber Command worked alongside its Ukrainian counterpart to buttress critical networks and flag vulnerabilities. Gen. Paul Nakasone, the leader of CYBERCOM and the National Security Agency, in April told Congress the operations were effective.

The alliance this week said it would “fully support Ukraine’s inherent right to self-defense and to choose its own security arrangements.” Assistance will be adequate, the declaration stated, “recognizing their specific situation.”

Colin Demarest is a reporter at C4ISRNET, where he covers military networks, cyber and IT. Colin previously covered the Department of Energy and its NNSA — namely Cold War cleanup and nuclear weapons development — for a daily newspaper in South Carolina. Colin is also an award-winning photographer.

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