26 August 2016

What is NATO doing to protect its Baltic frontier?

By Edward Hamilton Stubber

Last Saturday, Estonians celebrated their Independence Day .They certainly have a lot to be proud of. Since the 20th of August 1991, Estonia has gained full EU membership, become the globe’s most internet-savvy nation, achieved A-grade status across the world’s three major credit rating agencies, and joined NATO during the fifth round of accessions in 2004.

But it has not been plain sailing for this Baltic champion. In 2007, a wave of so called “denial-of-service” cyber-attacks spread across the country, targeting government websites, amidst violent protests against the removal of a 1947 Soviet war monument from the countries capital, Tallinn. In September 2014, an Estonian officer named Eston Kohver was abducted from his home nation by Russian FSB security forces, just two days after President Obama made a speech in Tallinn, reassuring Estonians that “the United States is working to bolster the security of our NATO Allies”.

In the same year, Estonia was reminded of the capability its eastern neighbour possesses, as Russia annexed Crimea with little resistance from the rest of the world. Ukraine is not part of NATO, making it easier for Russia to invade without immediate retaliation from the alliance. This month, tensions between Ukraine and Russia have risen again. Vladimir Putin has claimed that Kiev had conducted terrorist attacks on the Ukraine-Crimea border. Ukraine’s President, Petro Poroshenko, fears these allegations are a pretext to further military intervention by Moscow.

So what measures has NATO taken to protect its Baltic members from a similar fate?

NATO’s Baltic air-policing mission has been a welcome force in this regard. Since the Baltic countries do not have air capabilities to monitor their own airspace, NATO members with capabilities take turns at managing air surveillance in the region for around 4 months. The RAF finished its most recent air-policing mission alongside the Portuguese Air Force this month, handing responsibility over to France and Germany. As of June this year, RAF typhoons had intercepted 18 Russian aircraft in the area, and under last year’s mission they intercepted 40.

Fears have been raised regarding NATO’s decision in September 2015 to reduce the number of on sight fighter jets in the region, used for policing Baltic airspace, from 16 to 8: Lithuania’s defence minister, Marijus Vastakas, expressed concerns that, in the wake of Russian intervention in Ukraine, now was not the time to reduce the policing mission.

However, this does not compromise the deterrence function of the NATO mission. In peace time, reducing the number of able fighter jets in the Baltics to 8 will not make Russia any more likely to sanction an attack by air, let alone one that could overcome that many armed jets. In addition, regular surveillance missions by NATO only require two aircraft. Moreover, it is clear that NATO plans to compensate by diversifying NATO’s response capabilities in the region. It has planned to station four multi-national battalions (3000-4000 troops) in the Baltics and Poland for early 2017.

The real threat to NATO’s Baltic frontier is cyber-warfare, as the 2007 cyber-attacks on Estonia showed. Cyber-attacks are harder to link to the direct action of sovereigns, since civilians have access to computers which can launch attacks but not, for example, to armed aircraft. This makes cyber-warfare a new weapon of choice for states that wish to attack without immediate retaliation.

Estonia has managed to lift every kind of social service onto the internet, including electoral voting, and this is what makes it so vulnerable. By manipulating electoral votes in Estonia, Russia could control the outcome of elections and therefore place loyal agents in positions of power at the state and local level. In turn, these agents could use their positions to provide access points to Moscow in Estonia, such as government information.

A collaborative study report on the security of “e-voting” in Estonia during its 2013 municipal elections, written by independent electronic voting security experts from Michigan University and Open Rights Group in 2014, provides insight. It finds that e-votes cast in Estonia are vulnerable to sever-side attacks, as all e-votes are collected in one server to which malware could be uploaded by a state-level attacker. Furthermore, the study showed that the computers civilians use at home to vote online are insecure and identification information used by voters can be stolen used by cyber-attacks with government-level technology.

NATO has had some success in developing its cyber security. The 2014 Industry Cyber Partnership, is an initiative that establishes cooperation between NATO and private companies of member countries on cyber-security collaboration. In addition, NATO’s 2016 Technical Agreement on Cyber Defence with the EU has provides a broad platform for information sharing on cyber-defence.
However, cyber security experts at the Tallin-based think tank and NATO training facility for cyber-attacks, the CCDCOE, believe NATO’s cyber security policy is weak. They believe that as well as cooperative agreements that aim to prevent attacks and share information, NATO needs to increase its digital military capabilities by developing full range of quick offensive response strategies. They point to the recent hacks on the Democratic National Convention in the US, and that the lack of response by NATO will encourage further aggression.

The allied forces must be given teeth in the fight against cyber-attacks. Because of their illusive nature, these are a weapon of choice for sovereign states like Russia, and therefore require more attention. To develop an effective collective response to new age warfare from Russia, NATO needs to have better cyber-capabilities. It would fare better under a NATO cyber-defence policy that has a core offensive quick response plan to cyber-attacks, alongside preventative measures, and should take charge of policing elections in Estonia, just as it does with its air space.

Edward Hamilton Stubber is a CapX contributor.