Why Putin’s call for a US–Russia cyber reset will fall on deaf ears

11:06 2/10/2020 - Πηγή: Armynow

By Greg Austin* and Alexander Stronell**

Just how credible is Putin’s call for a US–Russia reset in the realm of ICT capabilities? Alexander Stronell and Greg Austin examine the motivations behind a new effort to advance Russia’s international agenda on cyber space.

Three days after calling for

a ban on space weapons in a speech to the United Nations on 22 September, President Vladimir Putin has called for a ‘reset’ in the US–Russia cyber relationship including a commitment to ‘no first use’ of cyber weapons. He has little chance of a positive response on either proposal from the United States.

In his statement on cyber diplomacy, Putin proposed that Russia and the United States establish a ‘comprehensive programme of practical measures’ to achieve a reset in relations with regard to information/communication technologies. The statement identifies the risk of ‘large-scale confrontation in the digital domain’ as one of ‘the major risks of the modern era’.

It concludes by calling on Washington to allow the US–Russia expert dialogue to continue regardless of bilateral political disagreements. Putin seems to believe that such a programme could become a model for the world, potentially ‘building a global world in the information space’.

Constructive policy agenda or overt insult?

Putin’s proposal calls for a restoration of a ‘full-scale bilateral and regular interagency dialogue on key questions’ of international information security. He proposes the establishment of continuous communications channels modelled on those that exist for lowering nuclear threat perceptions. These contacts should involve, he said, both technical specialists and high-level officials from the national-security and cyber policy fields.

So far so good. There will be many pragmatists in the United States, regardless of the outcome of the next election, who could work with that agenda. But there were too many pitfalls in the Putin statement, rendering it a non-starter.

Taking the ambition to an even higher level, Putin proposed a bilateral agreement on the prevention of incidents in the information space. This can be interpreted to mean both cyber technical incidents and influence operations conducted through cyberspace. The proposed model for such a treaty is the 1972 US–Soviet Incidents at Sea agreement.

The next element of the proposal was little short of a direct insult to the United States just six weeks out from the presidential election. Putin offered a ‘mutually-acceptable guarantee’ of non-interference in the each other’s internal affairs, especially in electoral processes (including by technological means). This comes at a time when there is credible reporting of Russian interference in the 2020 presidential election and almost four years after US intelligence agencies concluded decisively that Russia had, on Putin’s direct orders, interfered in the 2016 election.

Given the political divisions that the handling of the accusations of Russian interference has caused in US politics since January 2017, it would not be unreasonable to imagine that Putin included such a proposal simply to rub salt in US wounds over the matter.

What are Moscow’s motivations?

That may not be far from the truth, but Putin is also more transactional than that. This is his way of asserting that the United States too has long interfered in Russian domestic politics, a proposition repeated endlessly in Russian commentary since the launch of its first information security doctrine in 2000 to its updated version in 2016.

The trouble for Russia is that few in the United States accept the moral equivalence of American actions in Russia, ostensibly and openly in support of human rights, and Russia’s covert efforts directly to influence the election campaigns of two presidential candidates.

An equally fundamental non-starter for the Americans in the Putin statement may be the call for a global treaty in which states make a commitment to ‘no first strike’ in their use of ICT capabilities. The United States has long rejected Russian and Chinese proposals for treaties to regulate the security aspects of cyber space. At the same time, it has been an advocate for the development of new voluntary norms to govern many of those very same challenges.

That may sound like something of a contradiction, but the US support for voluntary norms has been directed largely at peacetime, non-military situations. The Russian proposal has a number of military implications, not least its call for limiting the use of cyber weapons pre-emptively (first use). Washington would not countenance opening talks because it will not want to engage in this effort by Russia to limit US room for manoeuvre in terms of the military uses of cyberspace.

The Russians will recognise that their calls for a restoration of normal cyber discussions are likely to fall on deaf ears in the United States. The main intent of the proposal may, therefore, have been to continue to sow dissent among the US and some of its European allies. Another aim may have been to buttress support among the 60 or so non-aligned countries that regularly support Russia’s international agenda on cyber space in UN votes and in their wider diplomacy.

* Greg Austin is a Senior Fellow for Cyber, Space and Future Conflict

**Alexander Stronell is a Research Assistant for Cyber, Space and Future Conflict

Source: iiss.org

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