In response to Russia’s increasingly aggressive actions, NATO ought to expedite the Ukraine’s application for member status and, simultaneously, the Ukraine ought to open up an Information Warfare Centre of Excellence in the Ukraine.

Russia:  Hybrid Warfare

The Russian invasion of “Crimea served as a proving ground for Russian information operations, as well as the larger applications of cyber warfare.  It brought the cyber domain to light among the masses and showed social media to the world as a potent weapon system.”[1]

Since 2014, Russia has been conducting military operations in the Ukraine.  At this point “seven percent of Ukrainian territory is now under Russian control. Approximately four and a half million citizens are in areas that are either Russian controlled, Russian occupied, or Russian annexed.”[2] Unlike historic military invasions, Russia is experimenting in a new form of warfare – currently referred to as “hybrid warfare.”  The Russian military operations have been greatly enhanced by cyber-enabled techniques and the integration of information warfare at the operational level of warfare.  Frighteningly, Russia has continued “a digital blitzkrieg that has pummeled Ukraine for the past three years—a sustained cyber­assault unlike any the world has ever seen. A hacker army has systematically undermined practically every sector of Ukraine: media, finance, transportation, military, politics, energy. Wave after wave of intrusions have deleted data, destroyed computers, and in some cases paralyzed organizations’ most basic functions. ‘You can’t really find a space in Ukraine where there hasn’t been an attack’ says Kenneth Geers, a NATO ambassador who focuses on cybersecurity.”[3]

The Russian military operations have been greatly enhanced by cyber-enabled techniques and the integration of information warfare at the operational level of warfare.

Ukraine: A NATO Member.

As a result of Russia’s action, the Ukraine has made a deliberate pivot away from its historic alignment with Russia to seek NATO membership.  On September 20, 2018 “Ukraine’s president says the country needs to amend its constitution to make NATO membership its long-term goal.”[4]  The bill received overwhelming support in the Verkhovna Rada (Ukraine parliament). The verbiage reflected the strategic shift in alignment stating that “Ukraine’s irreversible course toward European and Euro-Atlantic integration be stipulated in the preamble of the Fundamental Law along with the confirmation of European identity of the Ukrainian people.[5]  The criticality of this message being articulated in Ukrainian law is a direct counter to Putin’s influence operations through the media attempting to convince the attitudes of Ukrainians and the world that Ukrainians are ethnically Russian.

In response to Russia’s adventurism in hybrid warfare, “NATO officials are boosting funding and forging new partnerships to strengthen their members’ network defenses. But some friends of NATO say bureaucratic obstacles and policy disputes are hindering the effort. All of that is occurring against a backdrop of daily low-level information attacks — and occasionally much more serious ones — from an increasingly aggressive Russia.[6]

In response to Russia’s increasingly aggressive actions, NATO ought to expedite the Ukraine’s application for member status and, simultaneously, the Ukraine ought to open up an Information Warfare Centre of Excellence in the Ukraine.

Russia has continued “a digital blitzkrieg that has pummeled Ukraine for the past three years—a sustained cyber­assault unlike any the world has ever seen…”

Ukraine: An Information Contender.

One of the tools a nation can employ to affect other nations or international organizations is information. Information, as an instrument of national power, can be propagated through numerous mediums and organizations.  If NATO declared an interest in expediting Ukraine’s membership and the Ukraine declared it would fund and establish an Information Warfare (IW) Centre of Excellence (COE), these declarations would be a demonstration of information warfare at the strategic and alliance level.

NATO’s Centres fo Excellence.  Click the graphic to see a larger version.

As of 2018, there currently exists twenty-four COEs. “Centres of Excellence (COEs) are international military organisations that train and educate leaders and specialists from NATO member and partner countries. They assist in doctrine development, identify lessons learned, improve interoperability and capabilities, and test and validate concepts through experimentation. They offer recognised expertise and experience that is of benefit to the Alliance, and support the transformation of NATO, while avoiding the duplication of assets, resources and capabilities already present within the Alliance.”[7]

The range of topics include all of the warfighting areas and specialties you might expect that serve to enhance the warfigting capabilities of the alliance.  Establishing a COE often falls upon the host nation to fund and resource.  However, with the emergence of information as a warfighting domain, no COE currently exists exploring Information Warfare exclusively.  As Information Warfare has slowly evolved over time, some COEs are exploring it tangentially such as NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence in Tallinn, Estonia, NATO Combined Joint Operations from the Sea COE, Norfolk, Virginia, NATO Command and Control COE in Utrecht, The Netherlands, and the NATO Strategic Communications COE in Riga, Latvia.

The NATO Strategic Communications COE in Latvia comes the closest to taking on Information Warfare but it’s current structure and vision reflect an archaic positioning of Information Operations when it states:  “It also operates as a hub for debate within various StratCom disciplines: public diplomacy, public affairs, military public affairs, information operationsand psychological operations.”[8]  Now that information is its own warfighting domain, NATO must not treat it as a subordinate hub of strategic communication but support the elevation and establishment of an IW COE by the Ukraine to study IW exclusively.

Ukraine: A Threat.

As Volodymyr Horbach, an analyst from the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation so clearly articulated that Russia already considers Ukraine’s NATO application for membership a threat. Russian leadership has already spoken out about it, which Horbach infers that Russia believes the application is credible.  If accepted as a NATO member, Russia is “going to build a strong defense on the perimeter of Ukraine . . . this is also a big advantage, because now. . . Russia is on the offensive.”[9]

This analysis was affirmed by a Russian Foreign Ministry official.  Mr Kelin (director of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s European cooperation department) said “were the Ukraine to join the alliance, it would have equally serious military and economic repercussions for his country.  He added: The length of our common border is enormous.  It is utterly unequipped, so we will have to build defense lines there and to shift the emphasis of our defense structures towards the south.”[10]

The Case for Ukraine as a Centre of Excellence: Information Warfare

The United States recently released “Change 1 to its Joint Publication 3-0” and describes information as a joint function, it updated its definition of the information environment and stated that cyber is a global domain within the information environment.

“The information function encompasses the management and application of information and its deliberate integration with other joint functions to change or maintain perceptions, attitudes, and other elements that drive desired behaviors and to support human and automated decision making.

“The information environment.  Information is pervasive throughout the OE [Operating Environment]. To operate effectively requires understanding the interrelationship of the informational, physical, and human aspects that are shared by the OE and the information environment. Informational aspects reflect the way individuals, information systems, and groups communicate and exchange information. . . Finally, human aspects frame why relevant actors perceive a situation in a particular way.”[11]

In addition to employing information as a strategic lever of power, there are a number of other reasons to expedite Ukraine’s membership application and endorse the Ukraine as the future location of the IW COE.

First, establishing a COE in Ukraine literally puts the COE on the front lines and provides the member and partner nations the ability to study information warfare in the actual environment in which this conflict is being fought.  Since 2014, Russia has conducted ruthless and repetitive cyberspace attacks on the Ukraine’s critical infrastructure, employed special operations forces, annexed Crimea, and continues with its on-going hybrid warfare operations across the eastern Ukraine attacking civilian and military targets with impunity.

Next, most COEs are established in geographically logical locations such as Cold Weather Operations in Norway or they are established due to a particular expertise or experience such the Cooperative Cyber Defense in Estonia following the cyber-attacks conducted by Russia on Estonia. The IW COE in the Ukraine is logical based on both geography and experience.

Google Map of NATO Centres of Excellence
NATO Centres of Excellence. Click the graphic to view the interactive Google Map.

While COEs typically focus on research, training, education, experimentation, developing interoperability, etc, as an organization outside of the military chain of command, they do not operate as warfighting hubs or headquarters.  However, a COE is an inherently natural place for member and partner nations to coordinate and collaborate beyond the role, mission and vision of the COE without planning specific military operations.  Regardless of your perspective whether NATO is a political organization with a military arm or a military alliance with a political arm, the COE is an optimal hub for partners and members to coordinate, discuss and synchronize national efforts integrating their respective information and military instruments of national power.

For instance, when it comes to the employment of cyberspace operations, NATO still considers those resources as an asset that may only be employed by the member and partner nations at the individual national level. However, while there are some information sharing and classification challenges, it doesn’t preclude member and partner nations from sharing information at the appropriate levels about national objectives, themes, messages, policies, goals and objectives. And it is here, that the alliance members can create synergy and harmony, or at a minimum support one another’s efforts within the alliance’s objectives. And considering that different nations have difference capabilities, laws, policies and ROEs, other nations that possess the desired capability or authority to act, can take action to influence and shape Russian attitudes and behaviors whether directly or indirectly on a member or partner’s behalf.

As an example, NATO’s principal peer-competitor remains a Putin-led Russia. On an annual basis the IW COE in the Ukraine can discuss doctrine development, share lessons learned, improve interoperability and capabilities, test and validate concepts through experimentation and simultaneously they can discuss, research, experiment in how it might be possible to create a divide between Putin and his inner oligopolic circle.  They could discuss how to sew distrust among them, as well as, other opportunities to change the perceptions and attitudes, that drive Russian behaviors and support human and automated decision making – the very Joint Publication definition of the information function.  And finally, what individual member nations do following those discussions, remains one of their own individual national interest.

Establishing a COE in Ukraine literally puts the COE on the front lines and provides the member and partner nations the ability to study information warfare in the actual environment in which this conflict is being fought.

Conclusion: The Hazards of Ukraine Membership

As a political-military alliance, NATO states:

  • Security in our daily lives is key to our well-being. NATO’s purpose is to guarantee the freedom and security of its members through political and military means.
  • Political – NATO promotes democratic values and enables members to consult and cooperate on defence and security-related issues to solve problems, build trust and, in the long run, prevent conflict.
  • Military – NATO is committed to the peaceful resolution of disputes. If diplomatic efforts fail, it has the military power to undertake crisis-management operations.[12]

Russian cyberattacks against member and partner nations may not justify invoking Article 5, however if the Ukraine were to be accepted into the alliance, considerations and stipulations would be necessary to accept a member who is currently in a state of war. Acceptance of current conditions on the ground may be necessary, but simultaneously, this may also be a measure to prevent future escalation and drive both sides into more diplomatic efforts (another instrument of national power as opposed to military, economic or information).  If, NATO is truly committed to guaranteeing the freedom and security of its members through political and military means, promoting democratic values, preventing conflict, seeking peaceful resolutions of disputes and undertaking crisis-management, then NATO should contest Russia and politically, seek to hold Russia accountable.

As it is, Russia is conducting, and will continue to conduct, influence operations on individual member and partner nations by nuisance and social media operations to attacks on critical infrastructure.  And, again, while most of these actions fall below the Article 5 threshold, expediting Ukraine’s membership into NATO and establishing an Information Warfare COE in the Ukraine reinforces NATO’s mission, legitimacy, develops resiliency, defends its center of gravity (an unshakable alliance united in common cause and values) and challenges Russia in the strategic information domain.  Now is the time for NATO to act collectively as an alliance, and individually as members, to combat Russia adventurism and hybrid warfare at the strategic and operational level in the information domain.  Otherwise, Russia will continue to act with impunity and demonstrate to the world that NATO is an archaic political-military organization still wholly committed to winning the cold war.


Works Referenced

M. Holloway, “How Russia Weaponized Social Media in Crimea,” RealClearDefense, 10-May-2017. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 10-Nov-2018]
“Russia, Ukraine, and the Orthodox Church,” Council on Foreign Relations, 30-Oct-2018. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 10-Nov-2018]
A. Greenberg et al., “How An Entire Nation Became Russia’s Test Lab for Cyberwar,” WIRED, 20-Jun-2017. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 10-Nov-2018]
“Ukraine pushes ahead with plans to secure NATO membership,” AP NEWS, 20-Sep-2018. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 10-Nov-2018]
“Parliament votes for change in Constitution on Ukraine’s path to EU, NATO,” Ukrainian Independent Information Agency of News, 20-Sep-2018. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 10-Nov-2018]
P. Tucker, “How NATO Is Preparing to Fight Tomorrow’s Information Wars,” Defense One, 26-Oct-2017. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 10-Nov-2018]
“Centres of Excellence,” NATO, 26-Aug-2016. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 10-Nov-2018]
“About Strategic Communications,” NATO StratCom, 31-Oct-2018. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 10-Nov-2018]
“Analyst: Russia seriously perceives Ukraine’s probable membership of NATO,” Ukrainian Independent Information Agency of News, 30-Oct-2018. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 10-Nov-2018]
C. McGrath, “World War 3: Russia ‘will act’ if Georgia and Ukraine join NATO, warns top official,”, 29-Oct-2018. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 10-Nov-2018]
“Joint Publication, Joint Operations 3-0, Incorporating Change 1, 22 Oct 2018,” Joint Chiefs of Staff, 03-Nov-2018. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 10-Nov-2018]
“What is NATO?,” NATO, 01-Nov-2018. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 10-Nov-2018]

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