Cyber attacks on European oil terminals: A taste of Putin’s next hybrid war?

If we learned anything from Vladimir Putin’s invasion of the Crimea and the Eastern Ukraine in 2014, it is that he is a tricky old KBG spymaster, who places a premium on feints and deceit–and deniability.

Beginning in late February, 2014, Russia was not invading the Crimea–Putin and Lavrov’s denials sounded just like they do now, but mysteriously “little green men” wearing no insignia began popping up all over the place and taking control of key facilities, and local government bodies.

While Russian irregulars and other forces began moving into Donetsk and Luhansk provinces (together, the “Donbas”) in the Eastern Ukraine as early as Aptil, large-scale troop movements did not take place until August, as Putin was distracting the world’s attention with long convoys of trucks painted whie. The trucks were on a purported “humanitarian mission” to provide “aid” to the region, which with Moscow’s help had come under the control of so-called “separatists”.

Deceit and distraction, and delight at fooling the West, were at the heart of Putin’s strategy in 2014, and they may be now.

Another key dimension of Putin’s strategy and tactics is desensitization. By playing with the West, e.g., “Are the white trucks in the “humanitarian aid” convoy carrying military supplies or food and water?”, or “Are they going to cross the Ukrainian border without inspection or authorization?”, for example, Putin desensitized his opponents to his norm violations.

Well, they crossed the border. Later, the realization that regular Russian forces crossed the border doesn’t seem like such a big deal. His earlier desensitization tactics seem to drain the emption from the reactions to later grave violations of international law.

He has played with the West to such an extent in the present crisis, threatening a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, that this desensitization tactic may lead to a milder reaction if e.g., he only seizes a strip of land linking the Donbas to the Crimea.

It is somewhat striking how Putin has made a very obvious display of a massive troop build-up along and near the Ukrainian border. This he also did in 2014 and 2015, creating tensions that were only eased by the Minsk Protocol on September 5, 2014 and the Minsk II agreement on February 12, 2015.

We should all bear in mind that Putin is a judo master who is highly skilled at throwing his opponent off balance, and grabbing a lunging opponent and throwing him across the mat.

Recent cyber attacks on oil shipping terminals and facilities in Northwest Europe could well foreshadow a move in the kind of hybrid warfare Putin could use in the present confrontation between Russia, on the one hand, and NATO, Ukraine, and other democracies, on the other.


1) Charles Kennedy, “Major Northwest Europe Oil Terminals Disrupted By Cyberattack,” Oil Price, February 3, 2022 (11:00 AM CST).

“Operations at the oil terminals of some of northwest Europe’s biggest ports have been disrupted by a large-scale cyberattack, brokers and authorities told AFP on Thursday.

Antwerp in Belgium—Europe’s second-largest port after Rotterdam—and the major German port Hamburg were among those targeted in the cyberattack.

“Their software is being hijacked and they can’t process barges. Basically, the operational system is down,” Vreeman added.

With the systems down, the oil terminals are unable to process tankers and barges unloading oil and oil products.

Germany’s Hamburg and at least six other oil terminals in the Netherlands and Belgium seem to be affected by the cyberattack, Euronews and AFP report.

2) An op-ed in the New York Times, by an expert in Vienna, points to the possibility that Putin may have something much bigger in mind than an attack on Ukraine with conventional forces.


“Ivan Krastev, “Europe Thinks Putin Is Planning Something Even Worse Than War,” New York Times, February 3, 2022.

Mr. Krastev is a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna and an expert on international politics.

We may soon be looking at a conflict bween Russia and NATO which involves a significant cyber component for the first time.

If this occurs, a key question will be how nimble the U.S. and its allies will be in responding to attacks of probable but less than certain origin.

The Trenchant Observer

About the Author

James Rowles
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by James Rowles (aka "The Observer"), an author and international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. Dr. Rowles is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States OAS), in Wasington, D.C., , where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, Dr. Rowles has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. Dr. Rowles speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.=LL.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, Dr. Rowles has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on some the best articles that have appeared in the blog.