Cyber Defense

Russia's cyber aggression is in European Command's crosshairs

After nearly a decade and a half of intense focus on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, the United States is taking aim at more assertive nation-state actors. Air Force Gen. Phillip Breedlove, commander of European Command, this week published an update to the October theater strategy with the fresh inclusion of six priorities. Topping the list is deterring Russian aggression, and although the document addresses Russia’s overall military and political activity, the country’s cyber operations of late have been noteworthy.

Russia has engaged in a proxy war of sorts aimed at destabilizing the central government of Ukraine, which, following protests that led to the ouster of Ukraine’s pro-Russian leader, is drifting farther from its former Soviet parent. Over the past eight years, Russia has demonstrated advanced technological savvy, from the cyber events that served as the precursor to Russia’s military engagement in Georgia in 2008 to advanced electromagnetic spectrum activity and, most recently, to the first documented case of cyber activity shutting off electricity, which occurred in Ukraine. 

The malware discovered in the Ukrainian power grid is believed to have been implanted by a Russia-affiliated hacking group. The aggression and sophistication of Russian-affiliated cyber actors has caught the notice of military officials with implications for allies as well as U.S. domestic infrastructure (Russian-affiliated hackers are believed to have orchestrated an intrusion to the White House’s unclassified systems last year and the distributed denial of service attack on the Joint Chiefs of Staff email service.) 

Some experts, such as James Lewis, senior fellow and program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, believe that it is likely Russia possess advanced cyber capabilities on par with the destructive Stuxnet virus deployed by the United States in concert with Israel against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.

“Currently, United States European Command (USEUCOM) is confronting the most profound negative change in the European security environment since the end of the Cold War,” European Command’s document said, listing “A revanchist Russia” and “cyber-attacks,” to name a few. 

Additionally, the document charged that while the European security environment presents three geographically defined problem sets, cyber presents an additional functional problem. “USEUCOM must also defend against adversaries who can threaten our forces through the cyber domain by identifying and securing our critical infrastructure. This will be accomplished through a defensible architecture, ready cyber forces, and improved situational awareness,” the document states.   

About the Author

Mark Pomerleau is a former editorial fellow with GCN and Defense Systems.

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