Russia is hacking and harassing NATO soldiers, report says

The latest efforts by the Kremlin to disrupt NATO deployment include face-to-face harassment of soldiers using personal data. Some experts have said these tactics can easily turn deadly.

US and NATO alliance officials said they are concerned about reports that troops on NATO's frontlines in the Baltic states and Poland have been personally confronted by strangers who possess personal details about them.

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported Russia is using advanced surveillance techniques, including drones and covert antennas, to pull data from smartphones being used by soldiers deployed as part of the alliance's "enhanced Forward Presence" (eFP) in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. The WSJ story includes personal accounts of military personnel being approached in public by a person they believed was a Russian agent conveying personal details about them for purposes of intimidation.

Speaking at NATO headquarters, US Ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison said the matter is being looked into. "We will definitely be bringing it up," Hutchison pledged. One of the army officers who told the WSJ his phone had been hacked was an American lieutenant colonel who feared the Russians were tracking him with it.

Belgien US-Botschafter bei der NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison

US Ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison says she'll be raising the issue of Russian hacking of allied troops.

"We have seen attempts to undermine troops deployed in this part of our alliance, but our personnel are well-prepared to perform the mission at hand, despite these hybrid challenges," a NATO military official explained. "The safety and security of our personnel is always a top priority for NATO, as well as for all contributing and host nations."

The official, who was not authorized to give his name, emphasized that "all necessary measures" are being taken to "protect the mission" and networks, and that personnel are being trained to be vigilant "as part of their daily routines, including online."

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Not new to NATO 

The face-to-face harassment is neither unprecedented nor unforeseen. Many countries contributing forces to the NATO reassurance measures near the Russian border warn their troops about the dangers of oversharing on social media, for example, which makes it all too easy for adversaries to do "research."                  

Lithuania, which last year successfully fended off a disinformation campaign believed to have come from Russia, is among those allies most aggressively training troops on internet usage.

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"The Lithuanian Armed Forces are generally aware of possible risks and threats evolving from the usage of mobile devices, internet and social networks and this is taken very seriously," a Defense Ministry spokesperson told DW. "Every Lithuanian soldier is instructed on a regular basis about national limitations and information security requirements" to ensure responsible usage.

Bruno Lete, a security and defense analyst at the German Marshall Fund in Brussels, said he isn't particularly alarmed by the reports.

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"From a military/battlefield perspective [hacking] is easy to neutralize," he suggested, "by simply ordering troops not to bring their smartphones to training, operations or other missions. However, it may pose a psychological burden on troops' morale, knowing that 'Moscow is watching them.'"

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Lete said the incidents do, however, demonstrate how actively Russia is integrating "digital and cyber warfare into its conventional security and defense planning."  That, Lete told DW, is where NATO needs to pick up the pace. Despite cyber deterrence being elevated as a priority – cyber is now an official warfighting domain – "NATO, for now, remains on the reactive side," Lete said.

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Engineering enmity

Former Dutch intelligence officer Joe Shenouda, now the Principal Cyber Analyst for Verizon, sees the situation as a bit more sinister.

"What seems to be obvious is that Russia is acting on the [hacked] intel by sending people to try to 'social engineer' their way towards more leaks or intel than they normally would get if they would sit behind their keyboards in Moscow," Shenouda told DW. "The biggest danger I see is social engineering, NATO people have a private life as well, and [Russians] are going to exploit anything to get where they want to be."

Shenouda warned that even after being warned and trained, many users in sensitive environments are incredibly careless, freely sharing geolocation data as well as downloading apps. 

"[Adversaries] can see movements, training," he pointed out. "They can tamper with the GPS, insert false SMS messages." With easily available information to "follow" thousands of NATO personnel on social media, it's not hard to follow them in real life.

"This has all been done in Ukraine since 2014," said former Estonian President Toomas Ilves, whose country suffered what is widely considered the first act of "cyber warfare" in 2007 when hackers believed to be Russian paralyzed Tallinn's infrastructure temporarily. "Now it's NATO's turn."

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What is Zapad?

Zapad, which means "west" in Russian, is a joint military drill conducted by the Russian and Belarussian armies along Russia's northwestern border with Europe, which is also NATO territory. The 2017 exercise, which takes place from September 14 to 20, is one of Russia's four annually rotating regional training operations that tests military strategy and troop preparedness by simulating war.

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What has Zapad looked like in the past?

The Zapad games originated in the Soviet Union and the last exercises took place in 2009 and 2013. In the aftermath of those drills, NATO accused Russia of secretly using them to prepare tactics for its subsequent military invasions of Georgia in 2008 and Crimea and east Ukraine in 2014. NATO also accused Russia of ending both years' drills with hypothetical nuclear strikes on European nations.

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What will Zapad look like this year?

According to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe's (OSCE) 2011 Vienna Document, a nation must allow other states to observe its military drill if more than 13,000 troops are involved. Russia has said only 12,700 troops will take part. However, western security analysts have pegged the number as high as 100,000.

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Russia denies alterior motives

Russia has denied NATO's allegations that Zapad-2017 will mobilize troops in violation of international agreements; it insists it is being fully transparent in its preparations and operations. Russia's Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin (above) told DW that Zapad-2017 "is absolutely peaceful, and absolutely defensive in nature." He also denied that the practice maneuver was directed at NATO.

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'NATO remains calm and vigilant'

While NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has welcomed Russia's troop disclosure, he also has said that the Western military alliance with roots in the Cold War has "every reason to believe it may be substantially more troops participating than the official reported numbers" based on previous drills. "NATO remains calm and vigilant," he said in early September while in Estonia (above).

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Germany fears 'over 100,000' troops

German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen also claimed Russia will deploy "over 100,000" troops in the Zapad-2017 games. In January, Germany sent around 450 troops to Lithuania as part of a NATO mission. Lithuania, a former Soviet republic, is also uneasy about the Russian war games. Above (right), von der Leyen inspects the deployed German troops with Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite.

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Protests in Belarus

Politicians are not the only ones voicing concern over Zapad-2017. One week ahead of the maneuvers' start, around 200 Belarusians hit the streets of the capital, Minsk, to protest the military drills. Some 7,200 Belarusian troops will participate, Russia has said, and military exercises will be concentrated in the nation with close ties to Russia. A protest banner reads "For peaceful Belarus."