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Russian-Nordic Cyber War

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The Norwegian Parliament (Storting) disclosed that the country had received a major cyberattack on August 24; a month later that authorities presented a more detailed account of the kind of data that was compromised. Apparently, the target of the hackers were email accounts, which were successfully downloaded.

Credible threats and plausible deniability

The full extent of the attack is unknown.

“Government will continue its efforts to strengthen national cyber security and expand international cooperation in this field,” the government’s official website announced.

Norwegian authorities blame Russia[1] in no uncertain terms, without thus far presenting concrete forensic evidence, presumably because that would require a presentation at length of the data that was compromised.

“Based on the information the Government has, it is our view that Russia is responsible for these activities,” said Minister of Foreign Affairs[2] Ine Eriksen Søreide.

Proving conclusively that the Russian government is responsible for any cyberattack is hard. Acting through unofficial proxies, governments retain plausible deniability. In a world of Virtual Private Networks, it is hard to come by conclusive assertions and the Russian government typically denies that it sponsors any hacker groups.

What is clear is that there are several online groups whose activities closely align with Russian military objectives.

Approaches to Cyberwarfare

Cyber warfare is not a popular term among Russian[3] military theorists. Instead, the term is enveloped into more holistic concepts of information warfare that including computer network operations, electronic warfare, psychological operations, and information operations.

Due to their anonymity, efficiency and ease of deployment, hacktivists and cyber-criminal syndicates have been a key feature of Russian offensive cyber operations. Even though Kremlin’s crowd-sourced approach to mobilising hacker crews and criminal networks[4] has a long historical track record across a number of Russian agencies, the FSB appears to be playing a more central role.

In response, NATO and EU member states signed a memorandum of understanding establishing a European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats in Helsinki. Among the signatories were Finland, France, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The Finnish centre focuses on tackling cyber-attacks, propaganda, and disinformation, as part of NATO’s counter-hybrid warfare strategy.

Nordic Defence Cooperation (NORDEFCO)

The threat is real and in an “internet of things” world it goes beyond online systems.

Russian drones have allegedly compromised the smartphones of around 4,000 NATO troops stationed in Poland and the Baltics, granting them access to data such as troop numbers and intelligence information.

Such incidents have triggered a chain reaction among Nordic countries that have tightened their level of cooperation within the framework of Nordic Defence Cooperation (NORDEFCO). In November 2018, the Nordic defence ministers signed “Vision 2025”[5] detailing a 16-point “total defence” programme that will ensure interoperability and comprehensive regional collective deterrence.

Another Standoff in Russia’s Near Abroad

The threat to the region is mounting.

Russia managed to rebuild more than six military bases around the Arctic Circle in order to safeguard its interests.

Greenland[6] has failed to militarily rise up to the challenge and it is clear that the Danish cybersecurity umbrella alone cannot hold Russia in check. Iceland was one of the first nations to develop cybersecurity legislation back in 2003. But after 17 years of developing cyber-defence capability, the country remains vulnerable and largely dependent on US and NATO capability.

Bolstering its position as a collective security guarantor in the Artic Circle, in 2019 the US announced a $12.1bn initiative aimed at improving its military posture in the region. That move was not welcomed by Moscow, which views the emergence of an Artic Alliance in addition to NORDEFCO as an additional infringement to its “Near Abroad.”

 

 

 

[1] Niclas Rolander (2020). Norway Blames Russia for Hacking Lawmakers in Cyber Attack. [Online] Bloomberg. Available at: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-10-13/norway-blames-russia-for-hacking-lawmakers-in-cyber-attack. [Accessed 15 Oct. 2020].

[2] Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2020). The data breach at the Storting. [Online] Press Release. Available at: https://www.regjeringen.no/en/aktuelt/datainnbruddet-i-stortinget/id2770135/. [Accessed 15 Oct. 2020].

[3] Michael Connell and Sarah Vogler (2016). Russia’s Approach to Cyber Warfare. [Online] CNA’s Occasional Paper series. Available at: https://apps.dtic.mil/sti/pdfs/AD1019062.pdf. [Accessed 15 Oct. 2020].

[4] John Kampfner (2019). Sandworm — Russia, America and the new era of cyber war. [Online] The Financial Times. Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/fda4ca3e-0095-11ea-a530-16c6c29e70ca. [Accessed 15 Oct. 2020].

[5] Swedish Ministry of Defence (2019). Sweden assumes Chairmanship of the Nordic Defence Cooperation (NORDEFCO) in 2019. [Online] Press Release. Available at: https://www.government.se/articles/2019/01/sweden-assumes-chairmanship-of-the-nordic-defence-cooperation-nordefco-in-2019/. [Accessed 15 Oct. 2020].

[6] Martin Selsoe Sorensen (2020). U.S. Aid for Greenland Prompts Praise and Suspicion in Denmark. [Online] The New York Times. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/23/world/europe/us-greenland-denmark.html. [Accessed 15 Oct. 2020].