Dominic Bartsch/Flickr

Does a virtual country still need real military protection? And if so, who provides it? Short answer: Yes, and the United States.

Last Wednesday, President Barack Obama made a visit to Estonia, where he praised the country’s government in unsubtle terms as a core NATO ally. “As a high-tech leader, Estonia is also playing a leading role in protecting NATO from cyber threats,” he said. “Estonia is an example of how every NATO member needs to do its fair share for our collective defense.” 

Estonia serves as the host of the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defense Centre of Excellence. In many ways, it’s NATO’s cyber tip of the spear in Europe. It’s also a world leader in e-governance. Citizens have unprecedented access to health, education, and government services online and can even exercise their right to vote digitally. But it’s also becoming an online country within a country.

In May, the government of Estonia announced the launch of a “digital country” initiative. Beginning next year, the country will allow anyone who can pass a quick background and identity check at an Estonian Embassy to become a digital citizen of Estonia and get an ID card. Estonia’s future e-citizens can open bank accounts, start online businesses headquartered there, pay taxes online, or reinvest in the country tax-free. The initiative could be a model revenue-generating scheme for countries all around the world. More importantly, it could significantly increase Estonia’s geopolitical clout.

Siim Sikkut, a government policy adviser in charge of the new e-citizen effort, believes that the number of virtual citizens of Estonia could top 10 million by 2025—a huge increase over the country’s current population of roughly 1.3 million.

Here’s why virtual countries, and digital citizens, matter to U.S. security: A country with an increasingly antagonistic relationship with Russia is about to expand its cyber profile by a factor of more than seven, and it will be looking to the United States for protection.

At least, that’s what history suggests. In 2007, Estonia was the victim of one of the most famous coordinated cyber attacks in history following a dispute about the placement of a controversial World War II memorial. It was a small spat over a bronze statue dedicated to the Red Army soldiers who fought to liberate Tallinn from German control. But it was also an argument with big consequences.

Russian-aligned hackers, which many believed were acting under orders from the Kremlin, launched distributed denial of service or DDOS attacks affecting government and media outlets. The impact, for a country that’s highly reliant on the Internet, was surprising.

As The Economist described it in 2007: “Even at their crudest, the assaults broke new ground. For the first time, a state faced a frontal, anonymous attack that swamped the websites of banks, ministries, newspapers and broadcasters; that hobbled Estonia’s efforts to make its case abroad.”

Very quickly, a country that was a pioneer in providing e-services to its people became a cautionary tale not to mess with Russia. Estonia’s government responded quickly.

“In cyber security, Estonia learned hard lessons” from the 2007 attack, said Michael Polt, former U.S. ambassador to Estonia. Since then, according to Polt, the country has set a much higher standard of cyber security, and has advocated that its friends and allies, especially in NATO, do the same. "Estonia is better prepared for and more aware of cyber threats than most counties,” Polt said.

Other experts agreed. Robert Lenz, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for cyber, identity, and information assurance and current president of the firm Cyber Security Strategies, called Estonia a recognized leader in cyber security.

Today, Estonia allocates 40 million euros (roughly $50 million) to cyber security every year, which amounts to about .5 percent of the country’s overall annual spending. But being a leader in cyber security doesn’t fully inure a country to cyber attacks or cyber warfare. More online activity means more targets and potential vulnerabilities. That matters to the United States, which played a big role in Estonia’s response to the 2007 assault. U.S. forces in Europe provided personnel and technical assistance, and Estonia eventually became a hub for cyber collaboration, Lenz said.

In 2010, the FBI assigned a cyber investigator to work with the Estonian National Criminal Police on cyber crime matters full time. Estonian and American Computer Emergency Readiness Teams (CERTs) plan and strategize together in response to threats and attacks. “I was in regular contact with the Estonia Defense Minister over many years and he took a personal interest in pushing cyber security as well as engaging Silicon Valley to seek innovation,” said Lenz, who, while praising the collaborative effort, also acknowledged that hostility from the East seemed to be rising. The technical sophistication of the cyber threats Estonia faces right on its doorstep—be they from hackers, cyber criminals, or a nation—makes cyber security very difficult, he said.

Polt said the already strong cooperation between U.S. and Estonian security forces “would be even stronger if our Estonian friends had their way. The challenge for Estonia in its collaboration with the U.S. has always been to get our full attention, given our countries’ size disparities.” The addition of as many as 10 million e-citizens, many of whom will remain real citizens of the United States, will likely change that calculus.

“We would do well to take Estonian efforts in the cyber field seriously,” Polt added.

The events currently playing out in Ukraine have put that collaboration back in focus. The NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence suffered a DDOS attack in March, just as the tensions over the disputed area of Crimea reached a major turning point. The shadowy pro-Russian group Cyber Berkut, which many believe to be aligned with the Russian government, took credit. The attack had a mere cosmetic effect and the website was back up quickly, but it was no small PR smudge for an institution with “cyber” and “excellence” in its title.

The rising geopolitical tensions have not gone unnoticed in Estonia. Sikkut said that "of course" the Estonians see the escalating tensions in their neighborhood. “But it’s nothing that we haven’t seen before,” he said.

The responsibility of helping Estonia fight off cyber threats, if they continue to escalate, could fall to U.S. Cyber Command. As virtual countries grow, and tensions between NATO members and Russia rise, so do the stakes of cyber warfare as well as the likelihood of greater U.S. involvement.

“With their digital IDs, Estonians can use their smart phones to get just about anything done online—from their children’s grades to their health records. I should have called the Estonians when we were setting up our health care website,” Obama joked on Wednesday. Perhaps he’ll be receiving a call from them sooner than he thinks.

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