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Screenshot of the Petya/NotPetya malware.

From Schools to Total Defence Exercises: Best Practices in Greyzone Deterrence

Elisabeth Braw
RUSI Newsbrief, 15 November 2019
Modern Deterrence, NATO, Resilience
How NATO member states can develop societal resilience to combat modern threats.

In June 2017, a key node of global shipping – one that transports 80% of the world’s trade – went down. Maersk, the world’s largest container-shipping company, had been brought down by NotPetya, a virus later attributed to the Russian government. NotPetya went on to disable several other giants of the global economy: the international snacks company Mondelez, the US pharmaceutical firm Merck and French construction giant Saint-Gobain. NotPetya caused widespread chaos and cost, with its victims losing an estimated $10 billion.

Liberal democracies are not good at defending themselves against non-kinetic attacks directed against their civil societies, and this makes such attacks a favourite tool for their adversaries. Indeed, deterrence of such aggression cannot be achieved by governments alone; it requires a joint effort by governments and their civil societies. Some countries, including Latvia and Sweden which are examined in this piece, have launched initiatives which others can adopt and adapt.

The West’s adversaries are maintaining and even expanding their first-mover advantage

To date, the debate in liberal democracies targeted by non-kinetic greyzone aggression has largely focused on the forms of aggression and the intentions of adversaries. Google Scholar lists some 2,300 publications on hybrid warfare since 2018 alone, most of which are concerned with defining and identifying growing forms of greyzone aggression. As noted in a recent RUSI Commentary by Sweden’s Ambassador for Countering Hybrid Threats, Fredrik Löjdquist, the last decade has shown that ‘certain governments have clearly lowered their inhibitions to the use of malign and malicious actions’. He goes on to state that ‘the opportunity presented by our own vulnerabilities has increased, thanks to increased digitalisation and dependencies but also under-investment in internal and external security’. Understanding the growing forms of greyzone aggression is vital to the configuration of any response.

But analysing the problem can often lead to policymakers becoming mired in indecision. The West’s adversaries, meanwhile, are maintaining and even expanding their first-mover advantage, testing new concepts and forms of aggression and leaving the targeted country to catch up. The October 2019 phone call to US Senator Lindsey Graham by two Russian pranksters, who have suspected ties to Russian intelligence, who posed as Turkish defence minister Hulusi Akar, was yet another innovative weapon in the greyzone arsenal used by the West’s adversaries. This left Graham ridiculed and, after the senator, known as a strong supporter of the Kurds, labelled the Kurds a ‘threat’, discredited a leading voice in US foreign policy.

It is no secret that what is now urgently needed is a new form of deterrence, one that will make perpetrators of disinformation, cyber attacks and other non-kinetic forms of aggression reconsider the benefits of attacking. The aim of deterrence, as Peter Roberts and Andrew Hardie have pointed out, is ‘to prevent certain actions by another actor – whether a leader, state, group or other body – from occurring. Deterrence can be considered as an act, or as a state, posture or structure’. Or, as Dr Strangelove explains in the eponymous film by Stanley Kubrick, ‘deterrence is the art of producing in the mind of the enemy the fear to attack’. Deterrence, consequently, has taken on a wide variety of forms, of which the nuclear-based deterrence of the Cold War is but one. Nuclear arsenals, however, can do virtually nothing to deter non-kinetic forms of aggression such as cyber attacks, as non-kinetic attacks are often perpetrated by proxies – individuals acting on behalf of governments.

Sweden has also pioneered innovative measures to harness the wider population’s national security potential

It is thus imperative for NATO and its member states to begin learning from, and adapting, some of the counter-aggression measures already being executed in member states and allied nations. Such best practices are regularly presented as part of RUSI’s Modern Deterrence project, where practitioners from government, politics, industry and the armed forces regularly convene to analyse current protocols and exchange new ideas.

One such initiative is Latvia’s national defence curriculum. Latvia, a country of 1.92 million and 5,500 active-duty soldiers (along with an 8,000-strong National Guard), is faced with a significantly more powerful adversary to its east and thus requires both robust alliance ties and a strong deterrence policy. Latvia benefits from NATO membership and from the Canadian-led Enhanced Forward Presence stationed in the country. Even a small country, however, has deterrence capabilities beyond its armed forces. Indeed, Latvia has recognised that in a security environment comprising non-kinetic aggression, it is imperative to involve not just government but society as a whole. As the Latvian Ministry of Defence explains in its Comprehensive National Defence in Latvia document, ‘respect for Latvia’s statehood, inhabitants and national security should be taught from the first years of primary education’. Emphasising that ‘education should promote critical thinking and patriotism’, the document outlines that ‘teachers should be trained on how to deliver those skills to children’ and suggests ‘national defence school courses [as] a first step towards a more coordinated and integrated way of promoting the sense of duty’.

The curriculum, taught to 10th and 11th grade pupils, was introduced in the 2018/2019 academic year and will be gradually rolled out until 2024/2025. It will then comprise all schools and an estimated 30,000 pupils. The curriculum covers a wide range of national security knowledge and skills, including:

  • Situational awareness (ability to act appropriately in critical situations).
  • Understanding the role of citizens in the defence of Latvia, including different threats against the country and the defence of it.
  • Basic military and defence skills (including physical training, military discipline and communications).
  • Civic engagement, leadership and teamwork.

To be sure, Latvian teenagers alone will not be able to counter a massive hybrid attack by a hostile state. However, what is missing from the national security setup of most NATO members is exactly the skillset that Latvian high school students are now acquiring: the ability of ordinary citizens to understand the role of the armed forces and the citizenry in national defence; to look after themselves in a crisis situation; and to organise themselves in their local communities. These small additions to a country’s national security policy can make a significant difference to the creation of a more resilient state.

While Latvia’s national defence curriculum is not part of a nation-wide command-and-control system, the knowledge instilled in the pupils means they are no longer a burden on the national security apparatus, but an asset to it. Should supplies of daily goods be disrupted by a NotPetya-like virus, many Latvian teenagers would now know what to do. That contributes to the combined shield with which NATO member states should seek to deter kinetic and non-kinetic aggression, both individually and collectively.

Another NATO partner, Sweden, has also pioneered innovative measures to harness the wider population’s national security potential; an initiative which is taking place in the intersection between the armed forces and civil society. This November, Sweden launched the first part of its TFÖ 2020 total defence exercise, led by the armed forces and the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB). By 2020, the exercise will comprise the armed forces, MSB, local, regional and national authorities, the private sector and citizen volunteers. By treating civil society as an asset in national security and practicing accordingly, TBÖ 2020 increases Sweden’s deterrent capability in much the same way as Latvia’s curriculum.

The MSB’s If Crisis or War Comes booklet, which was sent to all Swedish households in May 2018, took a similar approach. By providing easy-to-understand information about how to act in a crisis – whether originating from a hostile state, non-state actors or a natural disaster – the publication contributed to the combined shield. The brochure was a clever strategic communication move by the MSB, signalling to aggressors that the Swedish government is serious about tapping into the public’s potential.

It is no secret that what is now urgently needed is a new form of deterrence

Lithuania is home to a completely different deterrent initiative, one which begins with citizen volunteers. In 2016, a number of Lithuanians began fighting back against the extensive disinformation about their country disseminated by Russian trolls by scouring social media and reporting such content to relevant platforms. They then pooled forces, informally naming themselves ‘the Elves’, and have since teamed up with Demaskuok (‘Debunk’), a website developed by Google and the Baltic media outlet Delfi, whose software can intercept up to 90% of disinformation spread on the internet, in as little as two hours.

The power of disinformation rests on its first-mover advantage: while debunking is a worthy effort, the damage has often already been done. Demaskuok and the now 4,000-strong ‘Elves’ thus add considerable value to Lithuanian deterrence: if disinformation does not reach its intended recipients, the attacker’s cost-benefit calculus significantly worsens.

None of these initiatives, however, contain an offensive element. To paraphrase Dr Strangelove, they will not make an adversary fear to attack – they will merely change the adversary’s cost-benefit calculus. Yet in doing so, and in utilising segments of society that, for the most part, are not involved with national security, they are useful additions to the extended deterrence arsenal that NATO member states should strive to establish.

For 70 years, NATO’s members have together formed a successful military deterrent. Given that today’s growing forms of aggression – not just cyber attacks and disinformation but business interference such as hostile investments as well – are to a large extent directed against civil society and are of a non-kinetic nature, NATO is not called upon to provide a traditional collective military response. Yet, NATO members looking to enhance their resilience to modern, greyzone threats can learn from the innovative policies of other members and thus better contribute to NATO’s combined shield.

After two generations of building capability in nuclear deterrence, the concept of societal resilience may seem unfamiliar. However, a state’s deterrence structure can encompass the skills of both its military and its citizens. NATO is much more than its permanent staff or even the armed forces and civil servants of its member states. It is time to tap into that potential.

Elisabeth Braw
Elisabeth leads the Modern Deterrence project at RUSI.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

This article is part of a special series of pieces published in recognition of the NATO Engages Conference, co-hosted by the Atlantic Council, GLOBSEC, King’s College London, the Munich Security Conference and RUSI. NATO Engages will take place in London on 3 December 2019, the day before the Annual NATO Summit.


Elisabeth Braw
Senior Research Fellow, Modern Deterrence Project

Elisabeth Braw directs RUSI's Modern Deterrence project, which focuses on how governments, business and civil society can work together... read more

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