Russian Harassment of NATO Personnel, Families: The Next Chapter in Information Warfare?

Several NATO allies units participated alongside the Estonian Defense Forces in Estonia’s Independence Day parade at Freedom Square in Tallinn, Estonia, Feb. 24, 2019 (U.S. Air Force/Master Sergeant Andy M. Kin)
Several NATO allies units participated alongside the Estonian Defense Forces in Estonia’s Independence Day parade at Freedom Square in Tallinn, Estonia, Feb. 24, 2019 (U.S. Air Force/Master Sergeant Andy M. Kin)

Joseph V. Micallef is a best-selling military history and world affairs author, and keynote speaker. Follow him on Twitter @JosephVMicallef.

Keir Giles is a senior consulting fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Program at Chatham House, The Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. He also leads the Conflict Studies Research Centre, a group of subject-matter experts in Eurasian security. Giles has written extensively on European security and Russian military affairs. Recently, I sat down with him to discuss Russian harassment of NATO personnel and their families and how it fits in the broader context of Russian information warfare.

JM: In a recent commentary for Chatham House, you reported that families of NATO personnel had been receiving harassing phone calls from callers you described as having Russian accents who "had collected information on the families and homes of individuals deployed in the Baltic states for the purpose of delivering highly personalized disinformation or intimidation."

KG: That's not a new situation. The incidents that commentary referred to were reported in Dutch media this month, but related to families of pilots of Dutch F-16s participating in the Baltic Air Policing mission, patrolling Baltic air space during 2017. Danish soldiers were warned of similar harassment ahead of their own 2017 deployment to the Baltic. Back in 2015 and 2016, I compiled reports for NATO that looked at the likelihood of this kind of targeting of NATO personnel in the larger context of Russian information warfare.

Related: If Russia Hacked Me, It Exposed the US Army Family System

JM: You've suggested that this type of harassment is consistent with Russian views that warfare in the information domain can be used to "simultaneously affect the entire depth of enemy territory." Is this kind of harassment going to become an integral part of Russian strategy? Is this a trial run? Will this type of harassment spread to U.S. and NATO personnel deployed elsewhere?

KG: It is true that the role of information warfare has undergone a revolution in Russian thinking about war. While the basic principles of Russia's hostile use of information remain unchanged, new technological enablers have transformed beyond recognition the ambition for what can be achieved. The key distinction is that, whereas traditionally, information warfare was seen as an enabler for military means, and an armed assault would be the final stage in a conflict once information and subversion had done as much as possible to weaken the adversary, now Russia considers it possible to achieve strategic aims -- up to and including regime change in adversary states -- by information means alone, removing the need for the final armed conflict.

This does not mean that information warfare has completely replaced conventional warfighting in Russian thinking. Russia is still preparing urgently for high-end, high-intensity, high-technology warfare, but the option of information effects achieving Russia's aims in a cheaper, easier and more deniable manner than open armed assault is an attractive one.

JM: A NATO Defense College paper that you authored described this kind of harassment as part of a broader "information warfare," which includes psychological operations, disinformation and a broad range of cyber operations designed to "influence the perceptions and behavior of the enemy, population and international community at all levels." In turn, Russia sees information warfare as part of a broader offensive strategy that includes both military and non-military components.

Presumably, this kind of activity is carried out by anonymous actors, preserving the Kremlin's deniability. How does NATO respond to an offensive strategy that includes both state-sanctioned and anonymous actors?

KG: "State sanctioned" and "anonymous" aren't opposites. But this blend of state, and apparently, non-state actors is a key element of some of the many definitions of "hybrid warfare" that NATO and its member states have produced since the Russian intervention in Crimea. Russia is content with deniability that is entirely implausible, but NATO has had over five years to rediscover Russia's long-standing approach to warfare and ensure that countermeasures are in place, including for when that warfare is undeclared.

JM: How do Russian attempts to influence election outcomes in the U.S. and elsewhere fit into this broader strategy of information warfare?

KG: It's important to put the attacks on democratic processes in context. The attempts to influence the U.S. presidential election didn't come out of nowhere; they followed a period of Russia testing its capabilities, escalating the scale and audacity of its cyber and information campaigns, and gradually discarding deniability. A key factor in the brazenness of the attempted election manipulation in 2016-17 was the failure of the United States to respond to what had gone before. It was a failure of deterrence which, as always with Russia, invited more overt and ambitious attacks.

But the discovery, targeting and exploitation of weaknesses in democratic processes is entirely consistent with previous Soviet tactics of subversion, updated to take advantage of the new tools and levers presented by the internet. Again, the underlying principle is consistent for Russia -- it is only the scale of ambition for what can be achieved with information warfare campaigns that has changed.

JM: NATO was designed to be a military alliance tasked with deterring Soviet aggression against Western Europe. It was not designed to defend the culture and societies of NATO members from Russian disinformation campaigns or attempts to destabilize their societies or political order. Is this a task that NATO should assume? How does it do this? At what point do disinformation or social destabilization campaigns or elections interference rise to the level that they should trigger an Article 5 response?

KG: This is not a part of NATO's mission, largely because for much of NATO's existence it did not need to be. During the Cold War, the governments and societies of NATO member states recognized the danger of subversion from Moscow, and took steps to defend themselves accordingly. The gap in the West's defenses has come about not through a failure of NATO, but because of two decades when the threat from Russia was less apparent, and governments and societies just forgot it was there.

NATO itself is unlikely to be able to take on this challenge in full. This is not only because information activities are unlikely ever to meet the definition of an "armed attack" as specified by Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. The contortions that NATO has gone through trying to work out whether its remit extends to the challenge of cyber aggression tell us how challenging the discussion would be. It is also because the defense against these campaigns is largely societal, not military, and mutual assistance between civil society is tangential to NATO's core functions. Other initiatives that run parallel to NATO, such as the British government's program for pooling and sharing of counter-disinformation information and resources among friendly states in Europe, are key to bolstering resilience against information attack.

JM: Russian disinformation campaigns or attempts to influence elections or destabilize other countries are nothing new. These were all part of the Soviet arsenal during the Cold War. Is this just a case of déjà vu or do social media and the worldwide web now make them far more potent weapons?

KG: This is precisely what has happened. The principles of subversion and destabilization, and using democratic processes against democracies, have remained consistent not just from Soviet times but from Russian practice under the Tsars. They are a constant feature of dealing with Moscow. The hyper-connectivity offered by the internet, however, means that the tools and tactics used to act on these principles can now deliver effects incomparably faster, further and more cheaply. It is the recognition that it is possible to communicate with the populations of adversary states not only en masse but also in real time that has transformed Russia's level of ambition for what can be achieved through information attack.

JM: NATO has been unwilling to comment publicly about the harassment of NATO personnel and their families. Why do you think this is? Should NATO be more forceful in denouncing such intimidation and moving more aggressively to protect the families of its personnel?

KG: It is striking that all the known instances of harassment of NATO personnel and their families -- including the spouses of Dutch fighter pilots, as reported this month -- are now several years old. They date primarily from the period of rapidly increasing NATO and U.S. presence and activity in the front-line states in 2015-17. By contrast, in a recent interview with the Estonian newspaper Postimees, spokesmen for the British and French EFP contingents in Estonia said they were not aware of any such incidents affecting servicemen deployed there today.

Incidents of this kind would be reduced, but not prevented, by increased awareness of the threat and of information security measures among NATO service personnel. But if it is true that they have ceased altogether, this must indicate a conscious decision by Moscow to abandon overt harassment. The methods of targeting NATO personnel may have changed in order to be undetectable, swapping intimidation for covert exploitation. Alternatively, open approaches to NATO personnel and their families could have been one of the range of information measures that Russia was testing during that period, and observing the result. Other examples include the mass simultaneous telephoning of thousands of Polish officers from Russian numbers, or intimidatory approaches to U.S. servicemen by Russian intelligence officers repeating details of their families and homes gleaned from incautious social media posts.

Either way, Russia has demonstrated that it is both capable and willing to reach out and conduct personal and individualized attacks on the service personnel of its adversaries, including by means of their families and communities. It follows that this is a likelihood NATO and its member states should be fully prepared for in time of crisis with Russia -- and that includes being open and forthright not only with service personnel, but also with the public about the threats to individuals and families.

JM: How should we respond? Should NATO be phoning the families of Russian soldiers deployed in Syria?

Legitimate use of information activities and information maneuver in time of conflict is one of the areas where NATO nations give the strong impression of being behind the Russian curve. Russian military thought leaders are convinced of the effectiveness of targeting with information effects down to the individual level, as demonstrated in Syria and Ukraine. We should hope that NATO countries are giving serious thought not only to protecting their own service personnel, but also to means of exploiting the same vulnerabilities with regard to Russian servicemen once hostilities begin.

But no, this should not extend to phoning the families of Russian soldiers deployed in Syria. George Kennan wrote from Moscow in 1946 that "the greatest danger that can befall us in coping with [Moscow] is that we shall allow ourselves to become like those with whom we are coping." If Western nations abandon their morals and values in order to resist Russia, there is little point in resisting further because Russia has won. This includes targeting non-combatants, a deliberate Russian tactic in Syria and elsewhere, but not compatible with law or values upheld by Western democracies. It also includes joining Russia in waging undeclared hostilities. Russia already considers itself to be at war with the West, in every domain except open military conflict. It is essential that Western nations recognize that simple fact in order to defend themselves -- but to respond in kind is to endorse, validate and confirm that view.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to for consideration.

Story Continues