The chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday elevated questions about whether a Russian cyberattack could trigger an Article 5 “collective defense” response from NATO and thus set off a broader war.
“We are in totally unpredictable territory.”
—Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.)
Speaking on “CBS Mornings,” Warner referenced Russia’s 2017 “NotPetya” crippling cyberattack involving a single piece of malware and said a broader computer-based offensive by Moscow was certainly possible..
“If the Russians decide they’re going to turn off the power, turn off all the electricity all across Ukraine,” said Warner, that same attack could “very likely… turn off the power in eastern Poland, in eastern Romania.” That in turn could affect U.S. troops based in eastern Europe, for example, “if suddenly hospitals are shut down.”
In such a scenario, he continued, “we are suddenly in an area of hypothetically an Article 5 where one NATO country is attacked we all have to come to each other’s aid.”
Warner’s comments came the same day NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg called Russian’s attack on Ukraine “a brutal act of war” and lamented that “peace in our continent has been shattered. We now have war in Europe, on a scale and of a type we thought belong to history.”
“NATO is the strongest alliance in history, and make no mistake we will defend every ally against any attack on every inch of NATO territory,” said Stoltenberg. “An attack on one ally will trigger a response from the whole alliance.”
In 2020, NATO Deputy Secretary Mircea Geoana said at an annual policy conference in Poland that the leadership of the military alliance had “agreed that a cyberattack could trigger Article 5 of our founding treaty, where an attack against one ally is treated as an attack against all.”
In his comments to CBS, Warner said the earlier NotPeya attack which “Russia launched against Ukraine ended up hitting American, European, and even Russian assets, [and] cost billions of dollars.” Now, “If Russia let 100 pieces [or],1,000 pieces of malware out [as] either an attack against NATO or even against Ukraine, that might bleed into NATO nations.”
“We are in totally unpredictable territory,” he said.
In later remarks on MSNBC‘s “Morning Joe,” Warner said that a fresh wave of sanctions expected by the U.S. and Europe later in the day could lead Russian President Vladimir Putin to launch “cyberattacks directly against the West and against the United States.”
Warner also discussed the issue in a Wednesday interview with Axios in which he said that “Putin’s been pretty clear that one of the first tools he would use to bring economic harm to NATO and America is cyber.”
“Play over that whole scenario, just at a larger level, and all the hypothetical conversations about what will constitute an act of war,” said Warner, “suddenly get very real.”
Putin, for his part, warned in a televised speech that “no one should have any doubts that a direct attack on our country will lead to the destruction and horrible consequences for any potential aggressor.”