Russia’s escalating European sabotage has NATO on high alert

There’s no time to waste. 

The lights are “blinking red” again, with NATO countries at greater risk of attacks. This time not by al Qaeda or ISIS terrorists, but by Russian-directed agents plotting acts of sabotage and terrorism. This sabotage could be the trigger for a wider war in Europe.   

However, it is not 1914 all over again. Looking to World War I might be a tempting historical analogy, but it would be a stretch.  

Unlike 1914, the 21st century NATO alliance will not sleepwalk into a NATO-Russian conflagration over Ukraine. Rather, they are awakened to these threats. Still, what NATO does in the near term with Russian interference remains an urgent task and may determine what kind of global order will exist for the rest of the 21st century.  

NATO recognizes the threats across Europe — sabotage, arson, cyber and disinformation — as part of an escalating campaign of hybrid activities. 

In Poland last summer, this made headlines when Russian-directed, would-be saboteurs were caught mapping out Polish seaports, placing cameras along railways and laying the groundwork for derailing trains. These acts of subversion are widely seen in Europe as part of a broader Russian strategy.  

Elsewhere in Europe, German-Russian nationals were allegedly planning to bomb military facilities in Germany, and four men go on trial next year for setting fire to a London warehouse connected to Ukraine that was funded by Russian intelligence. 

Taken together, these covert efforts are part of an unconventional Russian campaign to disrupt arms transfers to Ukraine, sow discord and create the appearance of European disunity.  

But it’s not too late. There are consequences to this spate of Russian-directed plots. If Russian spies are threatening critical infrastructure across Europe, then we can see this as a true stress test of the NATO alliance. 

In July, NATO will hold a vital summit in Washington commemorating the alliance’s 75th anniversary. At the top of the agenda is Ukraine. So, before Russia’s actions happen with casualties or major infrastructure damage, NATO must think through what collective defense to hybrid attacks against one or more allies might look like. 

The alliance has acknowledged that hybrid attacks could lead to invoking Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, and with this growing number of incidents, NATO must decide on red lines that would trigger war beyond Ukraine.  

Before Article 5 is invoked, however, NATO has some straightforward options: 

First, NATO must show its solidarity at next month’s summit by acknowledging the gravity of an intensifying Russian campaign of hybrid activities directed against countries in the alliance.   

Second, NATO must agree to double down on releasing and sharing information with its allies and the public on Russian sabotage operations. 

CIA Director Bill Burns noted that intelligence-sharing regarding Ukraine has been “a two-way street; we’ve learned a lot from our NATO partners, we learn a lot from the Ukrainians as well” and likened it to a “kind of essential cement in the coalition” thus far. These measures are an outgrowth of successes in U.S. intelligence-sharing to ensure partners have a common intelligence picture of Russia and its war in Ukraine.

Third, as Daniel Byman argued in 2018, Russia is a state sponsor of terrorism, but labeling it as such at the time was counterproductive. That was a reasonable argument before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

Now, with an alarming uptick of assassinations, subversion and potential for terrorism in NATO countries, it might be time to revisit designating Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism. If Russia causes casualties from its misdeeds in a NATO country, perhaps that’s another option on the escalatory ladder.   

NATO can stave off this threat and deter a wider war if it comes together to form a coherent strategy with parameters of what Russian behavior they will tolerate, coupled with well-defined actions that will be followed through. The NATO summit is the right platform for the United States and its NATO allies to be more substantive and less choreographed, and to rally around a plan of action for victory in Ukraine and securing NATO’s future.  

If the world is looking for a great power competition, it may have arrived with a vengeance.  

We’ve seen the pre-9/11 warning lights blinking red before; in a different kind of fight decades ago. But NATO is forewarned. And the alternative could be worse: a devastating act of sabotage or an assassination that triggers a war spreading beyond Ukraine.  

So, NATO must continue by all means to contest Russia below the threshold of war, keeping in mind that deterrence is its core strength.  

Christopher P. Costa is the executive director of the International Spy Museum and an adjunct associate professor with Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, Walsh School of Foreign Service. 

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