Finland and Sweden’s move to join NATO has raised concerns about potential cyber retaliation from Russia, which sees the expansion of the alliance as a direct threat.
While it is too early to judge how Russia might try to use its cyber capabilities against Finland, Sweden, or other NATO members, including the U.S., experts said it will likely launch unsophisticated and small-scale cyberattacks as a form of protest against the expansion.
Such attacks would not have the severity of cyber efforts Moscow launched against Ukraine amid the Russian invasion of that country. “I think it’s unlikely that Russia will launch the types of cyberattacks against Finland and Sweden like it did with Ukraine, primarily because the aims are different,” said Jason Blessing, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Blessing said that since Russia has no intention, at least for the moment, to invade Finland or Sweden, it may use different cyber tactics than it did with Ukraine to get its message across.
He added that it’s likely that Russia will launch unsophisticated types of attacks including website defacement and distributed denial-of-service attacks to disrupt its enemies’ networks rather than starting a full-scale cyber warfare.
“[Attacks] that essentially represent a protest against their requested membership to NATO,” Blessing said. Russia isn’t happy about the prospect of Finland and Sweden joining NATO, and earlier this week vowed to take “retaliatory steps” should Finland go through with plans to join the 30-nation military organisation.
Russian President Vladimir Putin sees NATO’s expansion as a direct threat. Ukraine’s talk of joining NATO was a part of Moscow’s justification of its invasion. The fact that Finland is now seeing to join NATO is also an illustration of how Moscow’s war has backfired badly. The U.S. has voiced support for Finland and Sweden joining NATO, and President Biden on Friday spoke with the leaders of both Nordic countries.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken is also set to meet Saturday with the foreign ministers of Sweden and Finland and NATO members in Berlin, where the officials are likely to draw the roadmap for the countries to join the alliance.
The process would likely move far more swiftly than previous bids into the alliance, as NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said last month that both nations would be welcomed into the organisation should they decide to join and could quickly become members.
The potential additions to NATO would be significant as both countries have long avoided military alliances and sought neutrality. Finland, which shares an 830-mile border with Russia, last fought the Kremlin in 1944 when it was the Soviet Union. And Sweden has not had a military alliance for more than 200 years, choosing instead to cooperate with NATO.
The prospect of retaliation is a real worry for Finland and Sweden. On Friday, a Finnish transmission system operator announced that a Russian energy company would be cutting off its electricity imports to Finland beginning Saturday.
Finnish politicians also have warned that Moscow could quickly cut off gas to the country, Reuters reported, citing local media. The Kremlin employed such tactics in Poland and Bulgaria last month in response to Western sanctions.
In April, Finland was hit with a denial-of-service attack that temporarily shut down the websites of the country’s foreign and defence ministries. The attack occurred while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was addressing the Finish parliament.
Josephine Wolff, an associate professor of cyber security policy at the Tufts University Fletcher School, said that the attack was “a relatively unimpressive and small-scale cyberattack that required no great technological expertise and resulted in only short-term disruption.”
“If that sort of [attack] is the extent of the cyber capabilities that Russia has on hand at the moment, then I think they are unlikely to be very successful at using cyberattacks to retaliate against Finland and Sweden.”
Blessing also said that since Russia is already busy fighting Ukraine, it may not have the bandwidth at the moment to carry out destructive cyberattacks against the two Scandinavian countries and NATO members.
The experts added that both Finland and Sweden have much more robust cyber capabilities than Ukraine does and would be in a better position to defend itself against Russian cyberattacks.
In fact, Finland recently won a NATO cyber defence competition this year. The annual war game, which was held in Estonia, provides technical training to cyber teams from NATO members and allies. The teams compete against each other in a simulation aimed to help them understand how to best defend their networks against cyberattacks.
“That’s a pretty good indication that they have the talent and the capability,” Blessing said.
Still, the U.S. and other NATO member countries may help the two Nordic countries if they determine that they need assistance in cyberspace. Blessing said that it wouldn’t surprise him if the U.S. sends one of its “hunt forward” teams with the U.S. Cyber Command to assist Finland and Sweden as it did with Ukraine prior to the invasion.
Wolff added that it’s possible but highly unlikely that such assistance from the U.S. and other NATO countries could prompt Russia to launch destructive cyberattacks against those countries.
“I think it’s unlikely that helping Finland and Norway would open the United States – or any other NATO country – up to much more significant cyberattacks than helping Ukraine already has,” Wolff said.
For now, the issue at hand is getting each of the 30 member-state governments to ratify Finland and Sweden’s accession into NATO, a requirement for the alliance’s expansion. That may prove tricky, however, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Friday voicing opposition to expanding the organisation.