Lithuanian conscripts practice during a NATO military exercise, 'Iron Sword,' at the Rukla military base some 130 km. (80 miles) west of the capital Vilnius, Lithuania, Monday, Nov. 28, 2016.

Lithuanian conscripts practice during a NATO military exercise, 'Iron Sword,' at the Rukla military base some 130 km. (80 miles) west of the capital Vilnius, Lithuania, Monday, Nov. 28, 2016. Mindaugas Kulbis/AP

A New Kind of War Demands New Defensive Alliances

The former president of Estonia proposes a collective-security organization based not on geography but on a shared dedication to democracy.

There is no need to wage a kinetic war or even to use debilitating cyber attacks on critical infrastructure if you can sway an election to elect a candidate or a party friendly to your interests, or to defeat one you don’t like. So what do we call Russia’s actions against a broad swath of the liberal democracies of the West?

The U.S. intelligence services say Moscow was behind the email breaches of the Democratic National Committee and John Podesta. The Dutch are so worried about electoral disruption that they are going back to paper ballots. German intelligence agencies have been uncharacteristically blunt, saying that the hacking group APT 28, run by Russian military intelligence, has hacked into the Bundestag and the servers of some political parties.

British officials have said they believe Russia had a hand in the Brexit referendum; I have been told the same by Italians about the referendum called by Prime Minister Renzi on government reform last December. And just five weeks ago, the French media reported that France’s Directorate-General for External Security believes a disinformation campaign coordinated by the Kremlin threatens to undermine the country’s upcoming presidential election.

As I will tell U.S. lawmakers today, all of this seems to have one goal: to weaken the NATO alliance, to weaken the European Union and European cohesion. Against a united NATO or EU, Russia is dwarfed. Against a divided Europe of individual states, or a defunct NATO, Russia dwarfs in population and in military might even the largest of countries across the Atlantic.

We are facing something that is clearly a policy. It is a policy of the Russian Federation to use military intelligence units to run hacking groups such as APT28 or APT29. The first one is also known as “Fancy Bear,” the other “Cozy Bear.” Both are GRU hacking units whose footprint has been found across the globe.

If we return to Clausewitz’s definition of war as the continuation of policy by other means, then what we are seeing is clearly the continuation of policy by other means. And then we must think not just about critical infrastructure attacks as war, but attacks on democratic elections in the same light.

We need a new form of defense organization, based not on geography but on a shared and true dedication to democracy.
Toomas Hendrik Ilves, President of Estonia from 2006 to 2016

The conundrum that Europe will face in the coming year is whether or not to use illiberal methods to safeguard the liberal democratic state under external attack. Social media is responding, albeit slowly. Facebook has announced a system to flag fake news; Twitter and Google are looking at the issue. This may not be enough.

In Germany, a country that for obvious historical reasons is far more attuned than most to the dangers of demagogy, populism, and extremist nationalism, lawmakers have already proposed measures against fake news. Yesterday, 14 March, the Minister of Justice introduced a bill that would fine social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook up to 50 million Euros ($53 million) if they do not quickly take down illegal content. This includes hate speech or defamatory fake news as well anti-Semitic material. Other Europeans may follow suit.

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Democracies stand on several key pillars: Free and fair elections, human rights, the rule of law and a free untrammeled media. Until 2016, an open media was seen as a resilient democratic pillar that supported the others. Yet, because of hacks, doxing and fake news, we can already imagine the problem all democratic societies will face in future elections: how to limit lies when they threaten democracy? How to keep parliaments and parties free of hacking? How to respond when mainstream parties or politicians are hacked and embarrassing e-mails is published by Wikileaks in the effort to influence the election, while parties and politicians friendly to Russia are not hacked or doxed?

But we in the West have asymmetrical advantages as well. Adversaries want to vacation here; park their laundered money in safe, rule-of-law countries; buy real estate that an authoritarian leader cannot confiscate. We can investigate money laundering, especially in the countries favored by the adversaries, and take appropriate action. We can make it hard for the children of the regime to study in the West or to live here on stolen riches.

Security cooperation evolves to meet shared threats. In the past, these tended to be organized by geography, due the the physical nature and contraints of kinetic threats. We need a new form of defense organization, based not on geography but on a shared and true dedication to democracy.

In different contexts, both McCain and Madeleine Albright have proposed a community or league of democracies. Neither proposal went far at the time. But the threats then were minor. Could such an organization help face this new threat? Five years ago, on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, I proposed that we consider a cyber defense and security pact for the genuine democracies of the world. After all, Australia, Japan, and Chile, all rated as free democracies by Freedom House, are just as vulnerable as NATO allies such as the United States, Germany or my own country.

It will take much hard work to create such a pact, but those who would undermine our democracies are already hard at work.