NATO Cracks Down on Russian Cyber Espionage and Sabotage

NATO Cracks Down on Russian Cyber Espionage and Sabotage

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, it has ramped up espionage in the EU, both as a means to help its war efforts and for its overall hawkish global strategy. Its espionage efforts span a wide range of activities, from installing physical cameras to arson to email hacking, and more.

In response, NATO and EU leaders have been cracking down on Russian spies and intelligence operations, especially in light of the EU Parliamentary election that took place between June 6-9. They feared — and still fear — that the Russian government was attempting to influence the outcome of elections by spreading false information and propaganda, influencing voter opinion, and launching full-blown digital warfare.

Increasing Russian Cyberattacks

In early May, Germany, the Czech Republic, the US, and NATO accused Russia of launching cyberattacks on private and government bodies, including “critical infrastructure operators” in Sweden, Slovakia, Lithuania, and Poland. 

They specifically condemned APT28, a Russian cyber espionage group associated with the GRU for taking advantage of a Microsoft Outlook vulnerability. In response, Germany summoned Russia’s representative and recalled its own Russian ambassador. 

According to German Interior Minister, Nancy Frasier, “These attacks are not just aimed at individual parties or specific politicians, but at shaking confidence in our democracy.”

Flare Ups Across Europe

In addition to cyberattacks, Russia has increased its physical network of spies throughout Europe, and their activities. 

In 2023, Polish authorities arrested 16 people connected to Russian intelligence operations. These people had responded to Telegram ads offering cash for spray painting underpasses. But what seemed like petty vandalism quickly escalated to setting cameras along the railway carrying Western military aid to Ukraine, and other more nefarious tasks.

Last month, Polish authorities again arrested nine men alleged to be spies for Russia who are being charged with beatings, arson, and attempted arson. In response to this incident and wider concerns regarding Russian attempts at espionage in Poland, President Andrzej Duda has allocated an additional  $21 million to civil and military counter-espionage services.

In the Czech Republic, authorities busted a Russian propaganda network that allegedly used the Voice of Europe news site to spread disinformation about the Russia-Ukraine War and to discourage the EU from sending aid to Ukraine. 

In the UK, a group of Bulgarians were charged with conspiracy to deliver national information to an enemy state with harmful intent. In April, five others were charged with burning down a warehouse connected to Ukraine and with seeking other potential targets for Russian sabotage. 

NATO Presents Strong, United Front to Belligerent Russia

As Russian cyber espionage and sabotage increase across Europe, NATO has realized that a tough stance is crucial in stemming the tide. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has said that they are working on “response options,” which include increasing awareness, protection of critical infrastructure, and cybersecurity. NATO also plans to implement tighter restrictions on the Russian intelligence community in member countries.

Further, Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo recently triggered a crisis mechanism calling for increased information-sharing across EU states and new sanctions tools. This is intended to coalesce relevant information and ongoing actions within member states to tackle the larger threat of Russian malign influence. 
Despite these efforts, there remains speculation that Russian influence may have played a role – though likely a limited one – in the EU’s recent elections, from June 6-9. After Macron’s losses at the polls, Russian ministers went online to chastise him for attempting to escalate conflict with Russia, implying that French voters were rejecting his anti-Kremlin stance. While rhetoric alone is not a threat, it is more important than ever to remain vigilant watching Russian geopolitical strategies. The EU will have to remain united and politically motivated to counter Russian political interference – and it must do so while addressing its own slight rightward shift.