Friday, June 17, 2016
As Russian Hackers Probe, NATO Has No Clear Cyberwar Strategy
TALLINN, Estonia — In the six months since part of Ukraine’s power grid came crashing down, turned off by highly sophisticated hackers, cyberspace allies of PresidentVladimir V. Putin of Russia have been leaving their mark here in the Baltics and across the sea in Finland and Sweden.
Perhaps to discourage the traditionally neutral Finns and Swedes from growing closer to NATO — this past week NATO conducted a naval exercise from Finnish territory for the first time — hackers disabled the Finnish Ministry of Defense’s website. That was preceded by electronic espionage against a Dutch commission that had concluded that a Russian-made Buk missile brought down a Malaysian airliner two years ago, killing 298 people. And Germany’s intelligence agency, the BND, recently told American officials that it believed Russian hackers had been behind a cyberattack that destroyed a German steel mill.
Here in Estonia, where NATO maintains a center to explore the alliance’s cyberspace vulnerabilities and potential responses to attacks, there is a widespread recognition that the Western alliance has yet to develop a strategy to counter Russia’s increasingly aggressive action in cyberspace.
While there are frequent conferences and papers, there are no serious military plans, apart from locking down the alliance’s own networks. Russia, China and Iran have increasingly sophisticated offensive cyberforces; NATO has none, and no established mechanism to draw on United States Cyber Command or its British equivalent.
That stands in sharp contrast to NATO’s strategy for dealing with more familiar threats. The alliance is expected to agree at a summit meeting in July to deploy four battalions inPoland and the Baltic States to deter land invasions, though there is no agreement on who will supply troops for the fourth battalion. And it regularly rehearses the procedures for requesting that its nuclear-armed members roll out atomic weapons if a crisis erupts; those weapons are stored near NATO headquarters in Belgium, among other places.
Two years ago, NATO declared that it could rule a cyberattack on one of its member states to be the equivalent of an armed attack, which would lead to a commitment by all NATO members to respond.
But when it comes to deterring the kinds of low-level probes, espionage and attacks that flow through European computer networks every week, NATO commanders do not seem prepared to take aggressive countermeasures.
Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary general, has taken a low-key, purely defensive view of what the alliance should do in cyberspace. In an interview with the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel last week, he talked of sharing information and expertise, but nothing of the kind of sophisticated probing and early-warning deterrence strategies that large and small powers have begun to develop.
In short, it sounded like a strategy from a previous age, before cyberattacks were regularly used as a weapon and as a tool of espionage.
James Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, who has written about how NATO could use offensive cyberweapons, said there was “a huge reluctance to share capabilities.” The United States and Britain say little about their offensive cyberweapon abilities, even to their NATO allies.
“The Russians get that,” Mr. Lewis said. “And they know that there is lots they can do without triggering any response.”
In part, that is because the Russians are experts at hiding their tracks. Almost all of the studies of the Ukraine power grid attack in late 2015 — both unclassified and classified — have pointed to hackers in Russia. But American intelligence officials say they have never been able to track the blackout, which affected 225,000 Ukrainians, directly to Mr. Putin’s government, and probably never will.
Instead, American officials are giving cyberutility firms and cybersecurity groups around the United States confidential presentations of an analysis of what happened to the Ukrainian utilities, as a warning of what could occur on home soil.
At United States Cyber Command, which has expanded rapidly since the United States carried out cyberattacks against Iran in 2010, Russia’s networks are a regular target of surveillance. By next year, Cyber Command will have more than 130 teams fully in operation around the world, integrated into Army, Navy, Marine and Air Force units, in addition to teams that work alongside the National Security Agency at Fort Meade, Md.
It has built up a vast early warning network, placing tens of thousands of “implants” — sensors that can also be used to insert malware — into networks around the world. But NATO is only beginning to explore what it delicately calls “active defense,” and says it is not focused on offensive cyberweapons.
The Russians have no such compunctions. But it is unclear what Russian hackers hope to achieve here in the Baltics, other than to make the point, as they did in 2007 when they brought Estonia to an electronic halt, that they can get into any system, anytime.
“Whatever the Russians have in mind — mostly intimidation — it usually fails,” said Estonia’s president, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who grew up in New Jersey before coming here to turn this small NATO country into a pioneer in introducing new web-based technology for governing a nation. The 2007 attacks backfired, he noted, because they drove Estonians far more solidly into the European and NATO camps.
In Sweden and Finland, neutral nations in the Cold War, the politics are more complex. As the NATO exercise began inFinland last week, the Finnish foreign minister was in Moscow, meeting his Russian counterpart, Sergey V. Lavrov.
The more Sweden and Finland turn to NATO, the more their networks, their news sites and their government ministries come under cyberattack. As Adm. John Richardson, the chief of United States naval operations, said at an event at the Council on Foreign Relations in May, “The fact is it’s a pretty hot war in the cyber domain going on right now.”
A hot war, but a kind that suits Russia well: It is part of what military strategists call “gray zone” combat. For Mr. Putin, cyberespionage and cyberattacks keep NATO and its partners off balance. They are enormously difficult and expensive to defend against, and, at least for now, they have operated below the line that is likely to prompt a military or economic response.
“It stays below the radar,” Martin Libicki of the RAND Corporation told a conference sponsored this month by the NATO cyber center here, officially known as the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defense Center of Excellence.
For the Russians, Mr. Libicki said, cyberespionage and weaponry are part of a larger strategy of information warfare and a blitz of propaganda that makes sorting out fact from fiction — say, the causes of the Malaysia Airlines crash in Ukraine — all the more difficult. But the attacks also remind the smaller nations here of their vulnerability, even if Russia’s troops stay on their side of the border.
So far, NATO has found few effective means of deterring attacks.
“The biggest problem in cyber remains deterrence,” said Mr. Ilves, the Estonian president, who has made the issue of avoiding cyber conflict one of the main themes of his time in office. “We have been talking about the need to deal with it within NATO for years now.”
His fear, he said, is that Russia or other cyberattackers will soon move to the next frontier: subtle manipulation of data like medical records, the operations of weapons systems and navigation data.
But for now, Europe’s focus is on keeping its secrets safe and its weapons working. Germany issued a warning last month about Russian attacks; its Parliament was targeted last year in an operation that sought to install software that would have given Russia continuous access to the Parliament’s computer networks. Hans-Georg Maassen, the head of the German domestic intelligence agency, told The Financial Times that the Russians were “showing a readiness for sabotage.”
Now, Germany’s defense agency has done what NATO has not: It has started its own cyberwarfare unit.