The Complex

Will Putin Push Obama to Reset His Missile Defense Plans for Eastern Europe?

Four years ago, the Obama administration scrapped plans to install advanced missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic that were seen as part of its efforts to reset relations with Russia. Today, with ties between Washington and Moscow at their lowest point in decades, the question is whether the White House should move new anti-missile equipment to Eastern Europe to reassure jittery allies and stick a finger in the eye of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The initial plan, which dated back to the George W. Bush administration, called for installing 10 ground-based interceptors in Poland and a radar system in the Czech Republic. Washington said the systems were meant solely to shoot down long-range Iranian missiles, but the Russians harbored deep suspicions that the systems were aimed at them.

When Obama canceled those plans in September 2009, administration officials said new intelligence showing that Tehran was making progress on shorter range missiles meant that it was important to shift to other, less advanced defensive systems that could be moved to Europe as quickly as 2015. The current White House approach calls for deploying two dozen SM-3 interceptor missiles to Romania and another two dozen to Poland by 2018. In the meantime, the Aegis combat system, mounted on Navy destroyers, would be used to shoot down Iranian missiles.

But with the U.S. scrambling to figure out how to respond to Putin's aggression in Ukraine, some on Capitol Hill are calling for Obama to accelerate his missile defense plans and move the SM-3 interceptors to Europe as quickly as possible or to deploy portable systems like the Patriot air defense system to Poland once again.

"The Obama Administration has been unable to counter this escalation of Putin's aggressive posture," Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) said in a statement earlier this month that typified Republican discontent with the White House. Turner and two others introduced legislation April 9 that he said amounted to a "to-do list" for the administration on Russia and Ukraine that includes increasing missile defenses. "Instead, they have been defensive, unsure, and unable to change Putin's course of action."

Any such move would be risky for the White House, which has tried to figure out how aggressively to move against Putin given Washington's clear desire to avoid any sort of armed confrontation with Russia and retain Moscow's cooperation on Iran and Syria.

Still, there is little question that the push from some quarters in Congress to do something is forcing the administration to consider other ways of bolstering its missile defense plans for Europe. But easy answers remain elusive.

"There's plenty of arrows in the quiver in terms of punishing Russia that can be effective and have bite," said Kingston Reif of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington. "Then there are counterproductive steps."

Experts like Reif believe the deployment of missile systems like the Patriot air defense system to help reassure allies is probably "the least objectionable" move the administration could make. "But the question remains what this hardware would be defending against and how its deployment would be more reassuring than other steps the United States and NATO can and have taken to reassure the easternmost members."

For now, the administration is sticking to moderate shows of force. On Tuesday, the Pentagon announced a series of four exercises in NATO member countries in Eastern Europe in which a total of 600 American troops would begin conducting company-sized exercises in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Poland. The first such exercise, with about 150 troops, began Wednesday in Swidwin, Poland. The United States has already sent F-16 warplanes to Romania and Poland as well as F-15s to Lithuania. The White House, though, has given no indication that it would be willing to send more troops to Europe, where about 67,000 troops are permanently stationed. The 600 troops taking part in the exercises are already assigned to the region.

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers and staffers hope the administration may be willing to look for ways of strengthening its current missile defense plans for Eastern Europe.

The easiest move would also be the most scalable. Deploying Patriot surface-to-air missile systems that could be used to shoot down Russian tactical missiles, for example, could instill greater confidence among allies that they will not "walk this road alone," as Vice President Joe Biden said in Kiev this week. Likewise for the deployment of what's called the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, or THAAD, designed to prevent against medium-range missile threats. Either system could be deployed to the region sometime this year, but that would likely mean the Pentagon would have to remove them from somewhere else. Patriot systems, for example, have been deployed to Turkey as part of a NATO mission to defend that country against Syria. Still, shifting the equipment to Eastern Europe would be relatively easy.

"There are things that we have today that we could deploy," said one Senate staffer, adding many members are still grappling with settling on just the right approach. It's a question of what the administration wants to achieve, the staffer said. "If your intention is to reassure allies, the most immediate response is to send Patriots into the region."

The Pentagon could also accelerate the speed at which it implements its overall ballistic missile defense policy in Europe. The Pentagon hinted last week that it could move more aggressively to place SM-3 interceptor missiles in Poland, for example.

"We will adjust where we need to adjust," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said at the Pentagon last week, his Polish counterpart standing beside him, in response to a question about accelerating timelines for deploying the equipment to the NATO member, which is looking at Russian troop movements near Ukraine with increasing alarm. "Obviously, the whole point about defensive capability, missile defense, is about real threats. It's not about theory."

A spokesperson for the White House would say only that the U.S. is committed to security in the region. "This includes our commitment to defend NATO European populations, territory, and forces from the threat posed by ballistic missiles," said National Security Council spokeswoman Laura Lucas Magnuson. She noted that the interceptor site will be active in Romania in 2015. "The sites in Romania and Poland are both in the budget and on schedule to be operational in 2015 and 2018 respectively."

The administration might be willing to speed up deployment of those missiles in part because it very much owns the current policy. In September 2009, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the then vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. James Cartwright, outlined a dramatic change in the U.S. approach to ballistic missile defense posture in Europe against a threat of long-range missiles from Iran. Citing new technology and updated assessments of the Iranian threat, the two announced the administration would move to what it called the European Phased Adaptive Approach, or EPAA. Under that plan, which remains current policy, the administration would use a land- and sea-based approach in which SM-3s were deployed on the ground and Aegis systems were used on the seas.

At the time, the Obama administration insisted publicly that the move was made solely to respond to a changing Iranian threat and had nothing to do with Russia. Privately, though, officials acknowledged then that the shift was also meant as a goodwill gesture toward Moscow, which was wary of the Bush administration plan. The Obama administration had famously promised to "reset" relations with Russia just seven months earlier.

Accelerating the current plan would mean deploying the systems to Poland as early as 2016, not 2018. That would require additional funding in the billions of dollars at a time when the Pentagon is cash-strapped and looking for ways to cut spending. The upside, though, could be significant: beyond the signal it would send Putin, the move could also reassure allies who question the American commitment to Europe's defense given the administration's much hyped "pivot to Asia." The key, some experts say, would be to use the missile defense shift as part of a broader strategy of deterrence.

"I think our debate right now should be about how to ensure that Russia does not continue invading other countries," said Michaela Dodge of the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington. "It's not only about missile defense, but it's certainly a very important debate."

If the Obama administration does in fact alter its missile defense posture in the region, Moscow will almost see it as an act of American aggression. Putin himself has suggested that if the U.S. pursues a strategy in which it moves missile assets into the region it will amount to a new arms race. Hagel dismissed this flatly.

"That's ridiculous," he said at the Pentagon last week. "It's not an arms race. It's a missile defense system, and we've made that very clear."

AFP/Wojtek Radwanski

The Complex

It’s Not Beijing’s Hackers You Should Be Worried About, It’s Moscow’s

When U.S. officials warn of the threat foreign cyber spies pose to American companies and government agencies, they usually focus on China, which has long been home to the world's most relentless and aggressive hackers. But new information shows that Russian and Eastern European hackers, who have historically focused their energies on crime and fraud, now account for a large and growing percentage of all cyber espionage, most of which is directed at the United States.

Individuals and groups in eastern Europe, and particularly in Russia and Russian-speaking countries, are responsible for a fifth of all cyber spying incidents in the world, according to a global study of data breaches conducted by Verizon, published on Tuesday. The spies are targeting a range of companies as varied as the global economy itself, and are stealing manufacturing designs, proprietary technology, and confidential business plans. The cyber spies steal information on behalf of their governments in order to manufacture cheaper versions of technologies or weapons systems, or to give their home country's corporations a leg up on their foreign competitors.

The report is based on information provided by computer security companies as well as the U.S. Secret Service and the Department of Homeland Security. Last year, it attributed nearly all incidences of cyber espionage -- 96 percent -- to sources in China. Russia and Eastern Europe didn't even rank in the findings. The United States is by far the biggest victim of cyber espionage, accounting for 54 percent of spying incidences, the report found.

The report's authors say the increase in spying attributed to Russia and Eastern Europe this year is partly the result of new sources of information that reveal more than was previously known about the long reach and sophistication of hackers in those countries. It's difficult to know precisely how much cyber espionage by Russia had gone undetected in the past -- Russian hackers have gone to great lengths to cover their tracks, unlike their counterparts in China, who have generally been easier to detect, said Alan Paller, the a cyber security expert at the SANS Institute.

But that Russian spying is on the rise seems clear, experts said. Spies in East Asian countries, primarily China and North Korea, were still the most active globally, accounting for 49 percent of all cyber espionage incidents, according to the Verizon report. But that data could be skewed by the fact that more cyber espionage campaigns were attributed to Chinese sources -- there could be other Russian campaigns that haven't yet been detected.

That may come as unsettling news for Obama administration officials, who have been watching warily as Russian forces in Ukraine have incorporated cyber spying and warfare alongside conventional military strikes in their swift takeover of Crimea and what looks like an increasingly likely invasion of eastern Ukraine. The report offers new and compelling evidence that Russia is just as interested as the long-time spymaster China in using cyberspace to steal secrets from governments and corporations. And viewed alongside Russia's successful cyber operations in Ukraine in the past few months, it suggests that Moscow is aggressively ramping up its efforts to dominate cyberspace both for spying and military purposes.

"Intelligence services, as well as cyber criminals, operating in Russia have an interest in collecting information on our government, industry, and economy," said White House spokesperson Laura Lucas Magnuson. "These threats are not going away. We are addressing them by improving our network defenses, sharing information on known vulnerabilities with the private sector, and implementing the president's executive order on improving cybersecurity for U.S. critical infrastructure."

The Russian forces in Ukraine have integrated cyber operations and conventional military tactics in seamless fashion, current and former U.S. officials and experts say. As soon as Russian forces moved into Crimea, they took over the state-owned telecommunications provider and jammed cell phone signals and severed Internet connections between the peninsula and the rest of the country. Customers across the region lost phone and Internet service, effectively shutting them off from the outside world. Two Ukraine government Web sites also went offline, presumably the targets of Russian hackers trying to stifle the flow of official information out of Kiev.

The Russian military then began a series of conventional and cyber operations against Ukraine's military. As commando troops took up positions in Crimea and seized official buildings, Russian naval vessels that carry radio and cell phone jamming equipment were spotted in the port of Sevastopol. Eventually, the Russians cut off Ukrainian forces in Crimea from their command and control systems, NATO commander Gen. Philip M. Breedlove told the New York Times. It was textbook operation that combined centuries old combat tactics with cyber-age assaults.

U.S. intelligence agencies were largely caught off guard by the Russian invasion. The occupying forces limited their use of radios and cell phones and went mostly undetected by the United States' surveillance networks, current and former officials said, an indication of the Russians' technological savvy.

"It looks like the Russians learned from Osama bin Laden and used couriers," Joel Harding, a former military intelligence officer who worked for the Army's intelligence command and has experience in surveillance operations, said in a recent interview. "They held access to those with a need to know and exercised strict discipline in communications security. That is the best professionalism I've seen from them ever."

The Russian success is especially stinging for the U.S. because these types of blended attacks -- cyber strikes launched alongside military operations -- are what U.S. military and intelligence officials have for years said will be the hallmarks of America's future way of fighting a war. Indeed, the US military is spending billions of dollars to integrate cyber warfare into military combat and intends to train a force of 6,000 cyber warriors by the end of 2015, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has said.

Also worrying for U.S. officials is the extent to which criminal hackers in Eastern Europe are forging alliances with the Russian government, effectively acting as cyber mercenaries. "I do think there are probably groups in Eastern Europe that not only dally in financially motivated crime, but also espionage," said Chris Porter, a co-author of the Verizon report. How much that's actually happening is hard to ascertain, because there's limited objective data on the matter, Porter said. But what is certain is that the U.S. doesn't hire criminal hackers to attack foreign governments on its behalf. That puts the U.S. at a disadvantage if other countries are willing to employ more aggressive tactics and hire skilled criminals to do their bidding.

The Verizon report found that cyber spying is on the rise around the world, not just in Russia and Eastern Europe. The number of spying incidents in the new report was three times last year's, which can partly be attributed to having more and better sources of information. But even accounting for those new datasets, the number of espionage cases grew since last year, the report's authors conclude.

Russian and Eastern European hackers appear to be interested in stealing the same kinds of information as their Chinese counterparts and are targeting generally the same industries, the report found. Classified military and intelligence information held in government computers tops the spies' list of targets. Hackers are also trying to infiltrate utility companies, mining companies, and law firms.

The Verizon report doesn't specify what types of information the hackers have stolen from those companies. But separately, security experts have documented an increase in espionage campaigns in the past few years targeting information about how U.S. oil and natural gas pipelines are designed and controlled, as well as where American companies are looking for new sources of fuel. The hackers have also infiltrated law firms to gain insights into where American companies are attempting to gain rights to drill for oil and mine precious minerals. Given that Russia's economy is largely dependent on energy, that kind of information would be of extraordinary value to the Russian government and energy companies.

Spies in East Asian countries, primarily China and North Korea, were still the most active globally, accounting for 49 percent of all cyber espionage incidents. But that data could be skewed by the fact that more cyber espionage campaigns were attributed to Chinese sources -- there could be other Russian campaigns that haven't yet been detected.

The vast majority of espionage -- 87 percent -- was attributed to "state-affiliated" groups, the report found. That could mean hackers working directly for a government or with its clandestine support, but still largely taking their marching orders from state officials.

Patrick Lux / Getty Images News