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Energy Security in the Era of Hybrid Warfare

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System Analysis and Studies

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Cyber defense, Education and Training, Energy security, Geopolitics, Hybrid Warfare, Strategic Awareness, Strategic planning


The European Center of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats identifies the hybrid threat as, “…an action conducted by state or non-state actors, whose goal is to undermine or harm the target by influencing its decision-making at the local, regional, state or institutional level. Such actions are coordinated and synchronized and deliberately target democratic states’ and institutions’ vulnerabilities. Activities can take place, for example, in the political, economic, military, civil or information domains. They are conducted using a wide range of means and designed to remain below the threshold of detection and attribution.” ( While the basic parameters of hybrid warfare are firmly grounded in insurgencies or asymmetric warfare, it is the inclusion of modern information communication technologies which makes it so unique and potentially impactful to society at large. Hybrid warfare, which includes cyberwar methods, allows states to impact political conditions of their adversaries. Moreover, hybrid warfare is significant because it gives states, terrorist organizations or criminal actors a low cost, high yield method to influence the politics and policies of other states, or even capture territory without the use of conventional military force. The most active perpetrator of hybrid warfare is Russia, which implemented it most effectively in its 2014 annexation of Crimea and continues to use it today to influence its desired political outcomes in, for example, Ukraine. Secondarily, China’s growing influence in Europe has the potential for generating hybrid threats. For instance, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence reported this year that China has the ability to launch world-wide cyber-attacks that could cause disruption of a natural gas pipeline for days to weeks. (Coats, Daniel R. Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Jan. 29, 2019.) As energy is the key to maintaining a technologically advanced civil society and ensuring state viability, the unimpeded flow of affordable energy is critical. Indeed, energy security has become a topic of considerable concern within the Alliance, to include the availability and deployment of both fossil fuels and renewable sources. The latter point is particularly relevant; as we experience a transition from fossil fuels to renewable resources, it is important to understand the potential vulnerabilities inherent in this process. Therefore, an important component of hybrid warfare is the ability of aggressors to attack and negatively impact the civilian energy infrastructure. Indeed, many hybrid warfare operations have been directed against the energy sector, both the power grid, as well as fuels production and distribution. Cyber-attacks on Ukraine’s power supply in recent years have highlighted hybrid warfare’s potentially devastating impact as well as the overall vulnerability of this sector. Therefore, in a changing and interdependent world, where energy is not only an economic commodity but also a “securitized” strategic resource, affected by national actions and multilateral agreements alike, NATO must adapt and derive ways to meet these new realities.


Rapid developments in cyber warfare have driven much of the changes in hybrid warfare and contributed to its non-attribution or relative anonymity. As an actor in international security, NATO has a unique role to play in the nexus between energy security and hybrid warfare. This role is particularly vital considering the Alliance’s ability to address dependencies and vulnerabilities among its members and act as a platform to build a common understanding of complex security issues. Ultimately, a key question must be asked, “What role does NATO play in addressing these dependencies and vulnerabilities?” The primary aim of this activity is to address the operational and technological nature of the threat and then to identify remedial courses of action. Specifically, the broad-based objectives are to 1) raise awareness of the energy-hybrid warfare nexus by understanding its component parts, 2) identify its broader impact in the civilian and military realms, and 3) define courses of action to mitigate the impact on civilian and military infrastructure and interests and develop countermeasures. The research team will delve deeper into the unique energy security dynamics found within NATO. For instance, the role of energy as a component of hybrid warfare will be examined further and will provide the analytic centerpiece to this activity. The continued dependency on fossil fuels (imported mostly from outside of the Alliance borders) leads to a vulnerability where large exporters may use energy to exert political, economic and military pressure on smaller member states. Moreover, the reliance on natural gas as a cleaner substitute for petroleum products introduces new threat variables into the equation. This critical dependence on fossil fuel imports by most of the Alliance’s member states will be explored further. Additionally, as much of NATO’s member states are promoting large-scale electrification of the infrastructure, how this will impact military operations demands further scrutiny. Finally, the ability of an aggressor to attack and disable large segments of the power grid, and thereby impact civilian security, as well as military operations, will be analyzed


The proposed activity draws on the experiences of its participating members and the existing work done by a cohort of subject matter experts from the Alliance member states, as well as Partnership for Peace contributors. It should be noted that much of the preliminary work has been completed as the results of workshops held by the research team at NATO HQ in March 2019. It was during this kickoff workshop in Brussels that the program’s main pillars were identified. These are: 1) What are the main threats to the civilian infrastructure? 2) Data acquisition, analysis and modeling 3) Understanding the adversary 4) What are the current and future mitigation efforts and countermeasures? The second workshop, which was held on 27-28 May 2019 at the German Zentrale Stelle für Informationstechnik im Sicherheitsbereich (ZITiS) in Munich, addressed these themes in more detail. A Washington, DC workshop is tentatively scheduled for late September 2019, while future events in Bucharest and Warsaw are under consideration. The themes and the material already derived from the previous two and future workshops will be integrated into the NATO activity described in this proposal and will help inform the final report2. Additionally, the activity proposed in this document will primarily focus on Russian hybrid warfare tactics, identify commonalities and determined unified responses. The recent growth of Chinese investments in European infrastructure will also be addressed with consideration to the energy sector.

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