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NEWS | April 5, 2021

Counter-Cyber Reflections for NATO

By Capt Casey Riggs, USAF


Since the mid-1990s, Russia has steadily recovered its ailing economy from post-Soviet collapse and resurfaced onto the world stage. It is Vladimir Putin’s objective to re-establish the Russian Federation (RF) in the international arena as a global security broker and secure Russia’s sphere of influence in a polycentric world rife with instability.1 The Russian strategic vision is clearly illustrated by both publicly available documentation as well as overt action on Russia’s periphery in places like Ukraine, Moldova, and the Baltic states. Much like the Allied dealings with the USSR during the Cold War, some have claimed that recent events are reminiscent of the clandestine and indirect interaction between the Soviets and West,2—an idea expressly acknowledged by the second highest ranking Russian official, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. This notion is also supported by the relative continuation of proxy conflicts between Allied nations and the RF in Syria, Libya, and Nagorno-Karabakh.

Both the Russian National Security Strategy and Military Doctrine serve to frame the Russian worldview and set an important backdrop for RF political and military actions around the world. The RF views the world as an increasingly chaotic environment and specifically mentions the political and military actions of the US-NATO Alliance as direct threats to Russian welfare.3 From this viewpoint, the RF sees itself as involved in an ongoing conflict with the West, unlike the Western perception of peacetime competition. The defensive lens that the RF views the world helps to provide context for the seemingly aggressive actions Russia is taking, notably in their near-abroad – the very same area of influence the Soviet Union held at its height.

Russian Doctrine and Organization

Since the Russian-backed cyber-attacks of the Second Chechen War, both the West and the RF have seen an increasing growth in capability and complexity of cyberspace activities in the military sector. Although the RF has shrouded their organizational structure in secrecy, especially those forces assigned to conduct operations in cyberspace, most of these capabilities remain embedded in various intelligence agencies. Russia has also demonstrated use of proxy forces, hired on as “mercenaries,” to conduct non-attributable cyber operations.

RF doctrine nests cyber operations within the structure of information warfare alongside electronic warfare, psychological operations, and information operations (IO).4 In this fashion, cyber operations (or “computer network operations”) are easily paired with, and historically used as, an enabler for these other activities in an offensive capacity—notably IO. In fact, Russian Doctrine consistently acknowledges the potential threats of IO against the RF, and their actions support those realizations via conduct of their own IO against other nations.

Recently, the Main Directorate of the General Staff (GRU) has been taking a more prominent role in the conduct of cyber related actions including attacks against electrical networks, banking sectors, government institutions, and the 2018 Olympics.5 This development marks a shift in focus from intelligence collection by state agencies such as the FSB and SVR to more brazen military cyber activities by the GRU.

Allied Doctrine

Allied Doctrine frames cyber operations within a defensive lens, however, subsequently acknowledges requirements for coordinating offensive effects through a structure called sovereign cyber effects provided voluntarily by Allies.6 Although NATO nations are developing these cyber capabilities, they struggle to organize under a cohesive operational goal and within a military framework, in which the budding NATO Cyber Operations Center may well address.7

Although defensive cyber operations appear to fall within the purview of military responsibility, NATO has repeatedly emphasized a strong cooperation with academia and industry to bolster passive defense (i.e., cybersecurity) via outreach to entities such as the European Union, United Nations, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. NATO also shares information and training through the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence, various schools throughout Europe, the NATO Industry Cyber Partnership, as well as various NAC boards and committees.

The member states of the NATO Alliance have also increasingly integrated cyber focused capabilities within their respective military hierarchies. Of the NATO Alliance, the US CYBERCOMMAND structure arguably represents the most mature entity for the conduct of cyber operations in a respective NATO nation since its inception in 2010.8 NATO has embraced its role in the collective defense of cyberspace by adding cyber defense to its core tasks in 2014.9

Fundamental Cyber Issues

The basic military responsibility is often defined within the construct of security and safeguarding the homeland against outside threat, and in some cases, ensuring stability of internal affairs. With regard to the cyber domain, the notion of sovereign cyberspace, positive attribution, and appropriate response, and applicable legalities are ill-defined and complicated in a number of ways. These fundamental issues shape the current approach to cyberspace operations by both Russian and Allied governments and largely account for the clandestine nature of modern cyber operations.

Firstly, the geographic borders of states provide a clear delineation of territorial sovereignty in the areas of land, sea, and air. Akin to the first layer of cyberspace, physical infrastructure can mostly be accounted for via relationships between autonomous systems. However, ownership and authority become more complex with undersea infrastructure or satellites in orbit, as there are no internationally recognized borders above the Kármán line (100 km). Even in the first layer of cyberspace, legal frameworks begin to degrade as common infrastructure is spread across physical space.

Second, the logical structure of the internet, used to route information, rests on a highly interconnected network topology and shared trust between connected devices. Central organization of allocation of IP addresses is provided by IANA; however, there are no “owners” of the disparate logical topology and IP addresses themselves are only loosely connected to information systems owned by governed businesses. Traffic between logical entities is easily modifiable for nefarious use. Herein presents a core problem of attribution, an important factor in the conduct of cyber operations. An actor can communicate or attack from one logical entity to another, while easily obfuscating any information which might reveal their identity. This issue, combined with a lack of central authority and agreed upon governing rules, presents a veritable “Wild West” in which the most cunning actors are able to operate with near impunity. Both the RF and Allied forces utilize the attribution problem to conduct clandestine cyber operations, protecting both themselves and the grey space networks they operate from with plausible deniability.

Third, it does not suffice to omit the problems of cyber-personas. While cyber-personas can be used as a tool to partially address the attribution problem, they only represent one-half of the progressing legal enforcement mechanisms; the other half is characterized by application of appropriate response. Exercising an effective and appropriate response to a hostile cyber action is not well-defined and response in-kind may not be possible or effective. For example, the EU has attempted to address this problem with the cyber diplomacy toolbox that provides recommended response options.10 The RF, on the other hand, consistently exercise a policy of “threats” and “punishment,” while holding adversary infrastructure at risk.

Fourth, obscure legalities create an opportune environment with which to conduct clandestine operations, especially those which fall below the threshold of armed conflict and therefore do not invoke International Humanitarian Law. Proponents of cyberspace law advocate the need for tenets in-line with laws of armed conflict such as proportionality and necessity.11 The development of the Tallinn Manual 2.0 represents perhaps to most mature legal approach to application of existing legal frameworks, yet highlights the lack of international agreements in this area.12


Offensive vs. Defensive Dilemma

Offensive and defensive actions have long been the contention of political rhetoric, and cyberspace is no different. The applicability of the terms “offensive” and “defensive” are usually based around sovereign ownership, which as aforementioned, is ill-defined. By examining the environment, we can see that any effective cyber operation must capable of extending effect through grey networks and affecting red networks, whether to defend one’s own network or to attack another’s.

For example, passive cyber defense (i.e., patching and best practice) is largely insufficient against a determined cyber actor, especially those belonging to well-funded national institutions such as militaries or intelligence entities like those in the RF. Russia has effectively demonstrated the ability to covertly prepare a cyber environment for follow on action, as well as conduct more ad-hoc Distributed Denial-of-Service style attacks against various types of systems for political purposes or even in coordination with military movements. There is no conceivable way to ensure the security of networked systems by passive measures alone.

NATO, as a military entity, is currently focused on defending its military command and control networks. This priority is mirrored in US Joint Doctrine, however, CYBERCOM has taken a more aggressive stance in its “Defend Forward” concept, realizing the strategic importance of extending cyberspace effects in a defensive capacity.13 Notionally, this concept seeks to mitigate vulnerability by active defense; however, this version of active defense can closely resemble that of pre-emptive offensive action.

Critical Infrastructure

Civilian critical infrastructure has been a longstanding topic of concern and, most recently, the attacks on the Ukrainian power grid have shown just how vulnerable this sector can be. It is clear that military cyber activities unconstrained to military target networks can have devastating effects on the civilian populous—that very same populous that military institutions are charged to defend. As a practical example, effects based operations and center-of-gravity analysis often identify non-military targets which can have extremely effective results, a lesson learned around the world during the US led Operation Desert Storm.

Although Allied cyber defenses, by necessity of limited capacity, are concentrated on military communications networks and major weapon systems, civilian cybersecurity remains ill-equipped to confront determined military cyber actors. It is therefore necessary to include the active defense of critical infrastructure within the realm of military affairs. This does not preclude civilian cybersecurity practice, but rather enhances it with offensively oriented military capabilities when necessary, and preferably proactively.

Legal Frameworks

The development of legal frameworks with respect to cyberspace will have major consequences for the conduct of both active cyber defense and offensive operations. The sanctity of national boundaries in cyberspace and an increased focus on national responsibilities to protect non-combatants from the effects of cyberspace action will make operating in grey networks more legally restricting and further entrench the clandestine conduct of cyber operations.14 The ability to project effects through this grey space in active defense will likewise become more difficult.

Conversely, garnering support through civilian sectors, formerly classified as grey space, to operate complex cyber operations will drastically affect non-attribution and would mark a major shift for executing cyber action covertly. Operating overt cyber operations is prohibitive and counter to the current asymmetric advantage non-attribution provides, at least currently.15 The progression of legal frameworks needs coincide with the development of national agreements regarding the ability to project effects through grey space for both offensive and defensive operations, while still balancing a legal regard for civilian networks.

Captain Casey Riggs, USAF

Captain Casey Riggs (MS, Air Force Institute of Technology; BS, USAF Academy) is a member of the Headquarters USAFE-AFAFRICA Agile Combat Employment (ACE) Team, which is responsible for institutionalizing the ACE concept for the European Command, as well as coordinating across the Air Force for the development and integration of the ACE concept of operations.


1 Russian National Security Strategy, 31 December 2015, http://www.ieee.es/.

2 Mason Shuya, "Russian Cyber Aggression and the New Cold War," Journal of Strategic Security, Vol. 11, No 1, 2018. 1-18, https://scholarcommons.usf.edu/.

3 "The Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation," The Embassy of the Russian Federation to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, 25 December 2014, https://rusemb.org.uk/.

4 Michael Connell and Sarah Vogler, "Russia’s Approach to Cyber Warfare," CNA Analysis & Solutions, March 2017, https://www.cna.org/.

5 Congressional Research Service, "Russian Military Intelligence: Background and Issues for Congress," 24 November 2020, https://crsreports.congress.gov/; and "BEARING WITNESS: Uncovering the Logic Behind Russian Military Cyber Operations," Booz Allen Hamilton, 2020. https://www.boozallen.com/.

6 "AJP-3.20 Allied Joint Doctrine for Cyberspace Operations,” Ed A, Ver. 1, NATO Standardization Office, 2020.

7 Don Lewis, “What Is NATO Really Doing in Cyberspace?” War on the Rocks, 4 February 2019, https://warontherocks.com/.

8 Max Smeets, "NATO Members’ Organizational Path Towards Conducting Offensive Cyber Operations: A Framework for Analysis," 11th International Conference on Cyber Conflict: Silent Battle (NATO CCD COE Publications, 2019): 163-177.

9 “Cyber Defence,” North Atlantic Treaty Organization, 25 September 2020, https://www.nato.int/.

10 Erica Moret and Patryk Pawlak, "The EU Cyber Diplomacy Toolbox: Towards a Cyber Sanctions Regime?" European Union Institute for Security Studies (EUISS), July 2017, https://www.iss.europa.eu/.

11 Przemysław Roguski, "Collective Countermeasures in Cyberspace – Lex Lata, Progressive Development or a Bad Idea?" 12th International Conference on Cyber Conflict: 20/20 Vision: The Next Decade (NATO CCD COE, 2020): 25-42.

12 Tallinn Manual 2.0 on the International Law Applicable to Cyber Operations (Cambridge University Press, 2017).

13 Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Publication 3-12, Cyberspace Operations, 8 June 2018. https://www.jcs.mil/; and U.S. Cyberspace Solarium Commission, Cyberspace Solarium Commission Report, March 2020. https://www.solarium.gov/.

14 Tina Park and Michael Switzer, "R2P & Cyberspace: Sovereignty as a Responsibility," 12th International Conference on Cyber Conflict: 20/20 Vision: The Next Decade (NATO CCD COE, 2020): 113-127.

15 Gil Baram and Udi Sommer, "Covert or not Covert: National Strategies During Cyber Conflict," 11th International Conference on Cyber Conflict: Silent Battle (NATO CCD COE Publications, 2019): 197-212.