Amid a resurgent campaign of Russian cyber aggression and a high-stakes summit that is just days away, NATO has bolstered its digital protocols, a move that experts say will reshape how the organization defends itself.
The new joint air power strategy unveiled June 26 envisions a NATO that has its 29 states synchronized in cyberspace, adding to its existing land, air and sea activity. The plan means that NATO members are formally able to add cyberwarfare to their joint operations toolkit.
The plan appears to improve collective cybersecurity through greater training and coordination among NATO members, but its real impact will only be known in the face of conflict. Be it online or offline, the question remains unanswered whether political leaders will respond in cyberspace through the transatlantic alliance, according to experts.
“For almost 70 years, NATO has been the bedrock of transatlantic security. Whether on land, at sea, or in the air. The same is now true in cyberspace,” said NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in a speech May 15. He urged the organization to agree that a cyberattack can trigger an agreement of collective defense among NATO states.
NATO was first stood-up to combat the rise of communism after WWII, but has been transformed into a club of North American and European countries that embrace collective security. And although the new NATO document does not mention Russia by name, it comes as experts have warned that Moscow’s cyber-activity has entered a dangerous era.
“For the first time since the end of the Cold War, the Alliance has to be able to conduct operations” against any country, the document reads.
But the intricate web of NATO alliances may be untangling amid shifting transatlantic relations. NATO leaders are set to meet in Brussels July 11 and 12, and a tête-à-tête with President Donald Trump and Russian leader Vladimir Putin looms. Trump sent letters to NATO allies warning them the meeting will center on who does and doesn’t spend 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense, according to sister site Defense News.
“The risk is that during his meeting with President Putin, Trump may do something similar to what he did after the summit with Kim of North Korea, where he calls for physical exercises not to happen on the border of Russia, and this may include cyber-exercises,” said Klara Jordan, director of the cyber statecraft initiative at the Atlantic Council.
But Jordan told Fifth Domain that the new air power strategy and its cyber provisions will not be high on the list of Putin’s complaints, likely allowing it to continue unscathed. “This document can serve as an additional tool to raise the bar for NATO states to invest in cyber-capabilities and think about a NATO that can coordinate across the alliance in a more modern way,” said Jordan.
A top Russian lawmaker, Aleksey Kondratyev, said that the new NATO strategy poses a threat to Russia, according to state-owned Sputnik News.
Bolstered Russian hacking
The NATO document comes as Russia has grown more aggressive in cyberspace through crippling hacks and a swarm of disinformation.
Russian hackers are attacking Ukrainian companies with malicious code, Ukraine’s cyber police chief told Reuters June 26. The police chief predicted the code would be unleashed “for a specific day.”
Ukraine is not a member of NATO, although the organization provides funding for its cyberdefense. Putin has argued that Ukraine is in Russia’s sphere of influence.
Starting in 2015, Russia changed its rules of cyber engagement, according to Kevin Mandia, the head of security firm FireEye, saying the country has ramped up their digital prowess. Speaking at George Washington University June 28, he said that Russian activity is mostly directed to Estonia and Ukraine.
A 2018 Estonian intelligence report predicts that Putin will continue his campaign of aggression in Eastern Europe and the Baltic states, adding he will fight in cyberspace.
“The Russian armed forces are conducting information warfare in other countries similar to the one waged against Ukraine for several years already,” the report said. The Estonian intelligence agency predicted that one specific target is “NATO and its member states.”
Justin Lynch is the Associate Editor at Fifth Domain. He has written for the New Yorker, the Associated Press, Foreign Policy, the Atlantic, and others. Follow him on Twitter @just1nlynch.