On Point: Russian Hostile Meddling Backfires in Northern Europe


by Austin Bay
February 12, 2019

On Feb. 11, Norway's intelligence agency severely criticized Russian jamming of GPS signals. The Norwegians said the Russian GPS signal disruption exploits that occurred last fall during NATO's Trident Juncture military exercise were not only a military concern but "also a threat to civil aviation in peacetime."

When Trident Juncture concluded in November, both the Finnish and Norwegian governments protested the GPS disruption. Norway blamed Russian transmitters at a military base located on the Kola Peninsula -- in the Arctic, east of Finland.

The Kremlin denied the accusation and said it had nothing to do with the jamming.

Despite the denial, given NATO's surveillance and detection capabilities, I think Norway and Finland have solid proof Russian electronic warfare units are culpable.

Trident Juncture's scenario is useful for understanding the current political context in the Baltic region.

The exercise was defensive. An aggressive power attacked Finland and Norway. NATO responded to defend Norway. NATO sea and air forces operated in the Baltic Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. The land maneuvers in Norway included U.S. and German armor. NATO aircraft supported Finnish forces in Finland.

Yes, NATO combat exercises in Finland. Since Russia's 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea, Finland has dropped the pretext of neutrality. Finns seem to know aggressive Russian power when they see it.

Spying on an adversary's military drills is expected. But jamming GPS signals is a type of kinetic action, albeit in war's gray zone. Norway reported there were no accidents attributable to the jamming. Accidents and casualties would have elevated the GPS jamming to a type of hostile attack, though one with a tissue-thin degree of plausible deniability. For example, Russian propagandists would argue that pilot error, rather than jamming, caused the helicopter crash, etc.

In 2007, Estonia suffered sustained cyber attacks that financially damaged the country. Estonia blamed Russia for the attacks. The Kremlin denied it and dismissed Estonia's evidence.

It's often difficult to conclusively prove Russian trickery as it is occurring or even in the immediate aftermath of Kremlin gray-zone warfare operation. A recently released RAND study, "Russia's Hostile Measures in Europe," says that hard evidence "of intent from the Russian state, evidence of influence from Russia on a local proxy" and evidence that Russian influence on a proxy "led to the achievement of a Russian foreign policy objective ... is almost never available."

I'm not so sure this is quite the case, but if hard evidence exists, it is most likely highly classified (to protect intelligence sources) and not available to Western media.

RAND concludes the primary reason for contemporary Russia's constant hostile meddling with its neighbors and NATO nations is insuring the "security and survival" of the regime led by Vladimir Putin.

Apparently, as the Kremlin sees it, hostile meddling -- like encouraging ethnic conflict -- seeding corruption, cyber attacks and just simply increasing tension keeps Russian adversaries off balance and wary. The GPS jamming certainly seeded tension in northern Europe. It was also a way to vex NATO. My latest book, "Cocktails from Hell," argues that a deep Kremlin goal is dismantling NATO and "the Kremlin's incessant anti-NATO propaganda campaign confirms it. This is a typical pattern: Russian operatives and local proxies make false but sensational accusations such as 'NATO is preparing to attack Russia' ... Digital media propagate the accusations, globally."

Bold Kremlin misinformation, apparently spread by the Russian government and its proxies through digital, broadcast and print media, confuses critics and provides the Kremlin with adequate diplomatic cover.

Up to the point that people have heard and seen enough. Finnish soldiers' training with NATO forces is diplomatic and military pushback. A substantial number of voters in Finland and Sweden favor joining NATO. In Sweden, joining NATO was once a forbidden subject. No longer.

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