Inside a European Center to Combat Russia’s Hybrid Warfare
Western countries are looking for new ways to defend against a new generation of war. Does a center in Finland have the answers?
HELSINKI — Located in an unassuming office building filled with boardrooms, lecture halls, and projectors in the Finnish capital, a new entity under the joint auspices of the European Union and NATO was founded with a herculean mission. Tasked with a 1.5 million euro budget, the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats was created to find new ways to defend against hybrid warfare: the blending of diplomacy, politics, media, cyberspace, and military force to destabilize and undermine an opponent’s government.
But four months after its prestigious launch in October 2017, the center is still striving to come close to the lofty expectations that have been set out for it. The nature of its activities remains ambiguous, raising questions about what it brings to the table as Western policymakers grasp with how to push back against a growing array of cyberattacks, disinformation campaigns, military saber rattling, and economic pressure that blurs the lines between wartime and peacetime.
“One of the complicated issues for everyone when looking at our center is understanding what exactly hybrid threats are,” Hanna Smith, the center’s director of strategic planning and responses, told Foreign Policy during an interview at the center. “The challenge has been to try to explain it in a way that is easily understood.”
One of the central tasks of the hybrid center is to articulate how different weaknesses — such as a poorly protected electrical grid or a vaguely written law — can be exploited in unforeseen ways by an adversary and then to share the best ways to defend against such attacks. In this vein, the hybrid center is more of an in-house think tank than a task force dedicated to debunking propaganda or tracking hackers in cyberspace.
The bulk of the center’s work is largely an academic mission dedicated to producing white papers, conducting training courses, and providing workshops to policymakers and practitioners.
“Our job is to focus on the phenomenon itself,” Jukka Savolainen, the director of a unit within the center dedicated to analyzing vulnerabilities, told FP. “We’re not pinpointing individual targets or companies or actors. It’s not about an individual case. It’s about identifying the pattern.”
The center is part of a larger effort by NATO and the EU to knit together their members’ expertise and help them adapt quickly to the changing face of conflict. Amid growing reports of Kremlin-linked meddling across the West, from the “little green men” used in Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 to allegedly interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Russia’s evolving playbook has been propelled to the top of the security agenda. NATO has increased its presence along its eastern flank, and many of its members are increasing defense spending. But exactly how valuable the center’s ivory tower approach can be remains to be seen.
“I’m not exactly sure what they’re actually doing,” Janne Riihelainen, a Finnish national security commentator, told FP. “Nobody really does.”
Speaking at the center’s inauguration event, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign-policy chief, hailed the initiative as part of Europe’s response to Russia. Both officials also highlighted the symbolism of hosting the center in Finland, a non-NATO member of the EU, as evidence of an “unprecedented level” of cooperation between the two organizations.
Since then, the center has continued to receive top-level attention: Finnish President Sauli Niinisto has touted it as a key contribution to European security, and U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis offered praise during a November visit to Helsinki, calling it an “institution fit for our time.”
While decision-makers in Europe see the changing security landscape, they are less sure how to respond to nontraditional threats — and this area is where the center hopes to shed new light. It remains unclear, however, how it will actually do this.
While much of its work is dedicated to Kremlin-linked efforts to sow discord across the West, the center is also looking at how terrorist groups such as the Islamic State use propaganda, legal loopholes, and other unlikely soft spots to their advantage. This wide mandate, as well as its small staff, has drawn some ire in the Finnish press, criticizing the center’s bureaucratic approach to a nonbureaucratic problem.
For Riihelainen, the center’s vague methods, coupled with the constraints of handling sensitive information that cannot be disclosed publicly, are likely to hamper its mission to connect the dots for policymakers and the general public.
“Deniability is a big part of hybrid threats,” Riihelainen said. “And if [the center] wants to be effective, they need to have a visible presence, and I’m not sure they can really do that.”
Charly Salonius-Pasternak, a senior research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, shares similar concerns about the center’s scope, mismanaged expectations, and its lack of resources.
“It’s never going to be an operational entity that sends out a message that something taking place in a certain country is actually a hybrid attack, which is what some people want it to be,” Salonius-Pasternak told FP. “It could still be valuable on an analytical level, but I’m not sure it has the resources to do that effectively.”
In many ways, the center is still searching for its identity. Its staff say they have a unique ability to draw upon the experiences of countries such as the Baltic states and Finland, which have endured hybrid attacks in the past, and to come up with real policy proposals that can be implemented in other countries. The center’s staff also say they can utilize the expertise of NATO and EU institutions.
“We’re a bridge between all these different institutions. That’s part of what we bring to the table,” said Juha Mustonen, the center’s director of international relations.
Jarno Limnell, a professor of cybersecurity at Aalto University who has consulted the Finnish government, told FP that he believes it’s still too early to give a complete report card on the hybrid center’s work but said its function as a type of think tank could still be valuable in helping the EU, NATO, and their member countries come up with new legislation and policies. Similar centers of excellence in Estonia and Latvia that focus on cybersecurity and strategic communications have carved out valuable niches as go-to places for policy insights on their respective topics.
“Expectations are very high, and I’d even say that they are too high,” Limnell said. “Some people are expecting them to solve the whole hybrid problem.”
Reid Standish is an Alfa fellow and Foreign Policy’s special correspondent covering Russia and Eurasia. He was formerly an associate editor. Twitter: @reidstan