With its ground war in Ukraine faltering, Russia has intensified its use of unmanned drones to attack Ukraine’s critical infrastructure — and signaled a willingness to conduct similar strikes against the West. Last week, Russian president Vladimir Putin suggested that “any critically important object of transport, energy or utilities infrastructure,” regardless of location, could be fair game. In the face of such threats, US and European leaders should ramp up efforts to protect critical infrastructure and make clear that any deliberate acts of sabotage will bring an equally punishing response.
Russia’s latest air assault has targeted Ukrainian cities, including Kyiv, as well as the country’s power and water facilities. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Tuesday that Russian strikes have destroyed 30% of the country’s power-generation capacity in just over a week. By deploying waves of “kamikaze” drones — allegedly supplied by Iran — against infrastructure targets, Putin hopes to terrorize Ukraine’s civilians and weaken their resolve as winter sets in.
NATO and the European Union have long warned about the risk of hybrid attacks on targets ranging from electricity grids to undersea fiberoptic cables. For years, Russia employed such tactics to destabilize Ukraine, sporadically cutting off the flow of gas, disrupting the power grid, and seizing or damaging assets. Those actions appear to have been a prelude to the explosion that wrecked the Nord Stream gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea last month. Though investigators haven’t definitively identified the perpetrators, the US and Europe suspect Russia of involvement in the blast, which was large and sophisticated enough to tear through steel and concrete more than 230 feet underwater.
In the weeks since, examples of malicious behavior have only increased: An apparent act of sabotage halted rail traffic in northern Germany and the websites of more than a dozen US airports were temporarily taken down by hackers believed to be inside Russia. As Moscow’s forces continue to lose ground, Putin is ever more likely to encourage similar attacks to sow chaos and undermine support for Ukraine.
Western leaders need to make him think twice. Since the Nord Stream explosion, Norway and Denmark have tightened security across their energy sector and NATO’s secretary general has promised a “united and determined response” to any further attacks. Yet much infrastructure in Europe and the US remains vulnerable. Communications and energy grids rely on systems that are too often old, tangled or exposed, and mostly privately held — Google, for example, owns thousands of miles of underwater cables, some not much thicker than a garden hose. Energy infrastructure, in particular, is at risk of “cascading failure,” where disabling a grid triggers broader upheaval and even loss of life.
Hardening the West’s defenses is critical to deterring Putin. NATO should deploy units that specialize in counter-hybrid operations to help guard high-priority energy facilities across Europe and stave off cyberattacks. Maritime patrols should be increased, especially in the Baltic, to spot potential disruptions to underwater pipelines and cables.
Going forward, NATO countries should devote a larger share of their defense budgets to resilience measures, such as limiting the fallout from cyberattacks. They should also do more to share intelligence and deepen coordination with private-sector companies, particularly around cybersecurity threats. More stringent and regular inspections of critical infrastructure would help to identify and rectify weaknesses in cables, grids and pipes.
At the same time, the alliance should remind Putin that Russia has vulnerabilities of its own, as exposed by the attack on the $4 billion bridge connecting Russia to annexed Crimea, and past reports of incursions into the Russian power grid. President Joe Biden and European leaders should warn the Kremlin that hybrid attacks intended to harm civilians will be treated as acts of military aggression — while still maintaining the necessary ambiguity about exactly how NATO would respond.
Russia’s threats against critical infrastructure represent a dangerous escalation. Swift and coordinated action to strengthen the West’s defenses is the best response.