The NotPetya attacks swept across Ulkraine and parts of Europe last week, crippling infrastructure and taking down the systems of major companies such as Mearsk. At first many analysts considered it to be another cybercrime attack but as security services have begun to pick apart the events of last week the evidence is mounting that it was something more. Not without just cause, the world began to suspect Russia and NATO has already making begun veiled threats that they may be forced to trigger article five in response to the attacks. While it is nice that NATO is taking the threat of Cyber Warfare seriously, the threat to trigger article five amounts to little more than NATO saber rattling.
Article Five compels members to act on an attack against an allied state
Article Five is the foundation upon which NATO is built. It enshrines the principle an attack upon one member of the alliance is an attack on every member of the alliance, a concept also known as collective defense. There are NATO forces on permanent standby in order to ensure that this principle is upheld.
NATO has used article five in on a number of occasions in the past. The Iraq invasion following the 9/11 attacks was technically covered under article five of the NATO treaty. It has also been invoked in the wake of Russia’s interventions in Syria and the annexation of Crimea.
Given how essential collective security is to NATO it should not come as a surprise that some are considering invoking article five in a response to the NotPetya attacks. The problem is that there is no precedent for doing so.
Article Five is designed to help members to respond to an attack but we don’t know who was behind NotPetya
It could be possible to interpret NotPetya as an “armed attack” against a European NATO member. In so far as NotPetya was designed to cause as much damage as possible and as such could be defined as weaponized. It is far more problematic however, to consider the attack an “act of war”.
NATO’s Cooperative Cyber Defense Centre of Excellence (CCD COE) argued in a press release on the 30th of June that NetPetya was backed by state actors or a non-state actor with approval from a state. Their argument holds some water. The NotPetya attacks were relatively sophisticated and were clearly designed to cause chaos rather than rake in cash. This was the very argument put forward by secretary general Jens Stoltenberg on the 28th of June when he attempted to argue that NotPetya could trigger Article Five.
The problem with their argument is that we have no evidence, other than supposition, that any state was involved in the NotPetya attacks. Yes, it is clearly weaponized, yes, we need to take steps in order to combat Cyber Warfare, No, we don’t know who did it. So who is behind attack that NATO is responding to?
NATO will blame Russia, even if there is no evidence that Russia was involved.
The implication in Mr StoltenBerg’s argument is obvious. Russia was behind the attack and NATO needs to band together against the old enemy. The problem with this line of reasoning is that there is absolutely no evidence that Russia is involved.
There are suspicions, reasonable suspicions, that Russia at least tacitly approved the attacks. There is even a precedent for Russian Cyber attacks in Ukraine but there is no evidence. Previous NATO actions against Russia, including the recent sanctions, have all been based on concrete evidence of Russian wrong-doing. Whether that be their interventions in Syria or the annexation of Crimea.
NotPetya has no evidence of Russian involvement. The thinly veiled threats to invoke Article Five against Russia in response are bluster, pure and simple. If NATO were to use their alliance in attempt to force further action against Russia over these attacks they’d be risking an escalation without evidence. A fact that Russia would jump on in order to discredit NATO.
Russia is being blamed because NATO is facing a crisis
The alliance is arguably at its weakest point in recent history. The President of the United States has repeatedly undermined the perception that America is committed to the principle of collective security. European nations are increasingly beginning to talk of a European Army. Something that until the events of the past year would have been considered unthinkable.
Mr Trump’s words that “NATO is obsolete” may well prove prophetic. Even if it is a self fulfilling prophesy. In order to prevent the collapse of the alliance, NATO has to keep its members focused upon the threat that Russia poses, rather than the antics of the American President. In order to do this, NATO needs to take every opportunity to highlight Russian aggression, real or imagined.
The problem with this strategy is that it risks escalating an already tense situation between NATO and Russia, as well as alienating certain members of NATO who are in favor of a more conciliatory approach. In essence NATO saber rattling strengthens the, broadly false, Russian accusation that the West acts hypocritically on the international stage. After all, WannaCry and NotPetya were only possible because the American NSA was hording exploits. This perceived hypocrisy reduces NATOs capacity to act as a true peacekeeping force and strengthening Russia’s position.
However justified it may be, NATO needs to tone down the harsh rhetoric and focus on action
It is always difficult for a large international body to organize itself, especially one as complex as NATO. It is a testament to the organization’s worth that it has survived this far. Unfortunately NATO finds itself in a difficult position, faced with the elected leader of its largest member, the United States, openly questioning its worth there is a chance that it may collapse.
The CCD COE is right to highlight that Cyber Warfare is a growing threat but simply threatening to further sanction Russia over the cyber attacks will get NATO nowhere. The focus has to be on coordinating international efforts to fight Cyber Warfare through dialogue and cooperation. Even with the likes of Russia, should they choose to participate. Saber Rattling and bluster will get us nowhere, except perhaps a war that nobody will win.