While the claim that hackers linked to the Russian government hacked the Democratic National Committee to steal research on GOP candidates certainly grabbed headlines, a more important story on cyberspace was unfolding in Brussels.

In a press conference on June 14, NATO Allied ministers formally agreed to include cyber operations in its war domain along with air, land, and sea operations, and to amplify the defense of its computer networks.

The Future of Warfare

Declaring cyber as an official domain of warfare allows NATO to improve planning and better manage resources for cyber defense operations. In 2014, NATO stated that a cyber-attack could rise to the level of a military assault and trigger Article 5 protections, which means that NATO could respond to cyber attacks with conventional weapons just as they would for an air, land, or sea attack.

Although Secretary General Stoltenberg said the decision to include cyber as another domain of warfare is not aimed at any one country, NATO is clearly worried about one neighbor in particular—Russia. This new decision will hopefully help NATO prepare for responding to cyber attacks. NATO’s decision comes at an important time given Russia’s aggressive use of cyber attacks against neighboring states, including Estonia in 2007 and Georgia in 2008. More recently, the cyber attack on the electrical grid of non-NATO Ukraine left as many as 230,000 without power. This event has overshadowed other likely Russian cyber attacks impacting NATO members Germany, Lithuania, and the Netherlands.

Response to Russian Cyber Aggression

Russian cyber capabilities are advanced, and President Putin has proven himself willing to use them to target NATO members. NATO’s decision to recognize cyberspace as an operational command provides a framework for future responses to cyber aggression against NATO members and should help further strengthen a vulnerable piece of collective security.

The U.S. should enhance cooperation with allies on cyber defense, including the following steps:

  • Exploring ways to “to broaden cooperation in cyber defense…sharing experience, expanding contingency planning, increasing training and exercises, and developing capabilities”;
  • Leading international efforts to “name and shame” nations that use the cyber realm for malicious purposes; and
  • Using diplomatic and economic sanctions to deter cyber aggression.

The U.S. and NATO must also be more prepared in the physical domains. The U.S. should increase its troop presence in nations such as Poland and the Baltics, restoring confidence in the U.S.’s ability to protect its friends and allies.

Cyberspace will remain a contested space for the foreseeable future. In light of Russia’s continuing cyber attacks against NATO members, NATO’s decision to declare cyberspace an official domain of warfare is an important step in the right direction.