The bilateral relationship between the United States and Russia is at its most dangerous point since the Cuban missile crisis. In some ways it is worse. As a Russian colleague recently observed, the management of Cold War tension was mathematical; today it is emotional. Further cemented by the chemical attack in Syria and by new sanctions, the hard lines both sides have drawn bode poorly for progress in reducing tensions. The immediate task is to keep communication channels open to avoid missteps or miscalculations that could lead to inadvertent or unnecessary escalation of conflict between the two nuclear powers.
Cyber is both an element of and hostage to the larger set of issues affecting U.S.-Russia relations. White House officials have made it clear that they won’t talk to the Russians about cyber until there is some reduction in Russian-based (or directed) hostile activity. However, Russian officials say they are neither aware of nor responsible for any alleged cyberattacks, emphasizing that these would in any case be the work of independent parties.
In 2015, a UN group of governmental experts that included representatives of Russia and the United States agreed that states should be responsible for curbing attacks originating in their territories. Unfortunately, since a plurality of global cyberattacks comes from servers based in the United States, and the U.S. government generally has no authority to restrict private activity of this sort, Washinton’s ability to press others for compliance is limited. The 2015 cyber agreement concluded by Chinese President Xi Jinping and former U.S. President Barack Obama may be instructive. After continued diplomatic pressure from the United States, both sides agreed not to conduct cyberattacks for private economic advantage, without admitting they had ever done so. And the volume of Chinese attacks did go down.
For now, however, the Russians are not entertaining proposals for confidence-building measures, even symbolic ones. Instead, there is considerable anger and resentment over the last-minute, no-notice U.S. cancellation of a cyber dialogue in Geneva earlier this year. The Moscow consensus is that not much progress is possible until the U.S. midterm elections are done.
The topics of fake news, content manipulation, and information warfare are also concerning, but most conversations are disjointed and unsophisticated. Many Russians are cynical about government propaganda and concerned about a law pending in the Duma that would require online platforms to take down information if directed by a court “or other government body.” Deliberate lies, shading the truth, good faith (or overzealous) errors, unwelcome news and terrorist content are conflated. Little is said about the challenges of balancing freedom of expression with the maintenance of public order. Thus, the foundation for building serious dialogue around Russian election meddling or American promotion of color revolutions and their implications for national sovereignty is weak. As the velocity and power of information continues to increase, this is a recipe for instability.
In the meantime, for the United States to protect democracy, online platforms must take more responsibility for the information they disseminate. And the public must learn to resist the comfort of the echo chamber and the thrill of sensationalism and become more resilient in the face of an overwhelming stream of content increasingly designed to own and manipulate human attention.
Improving the U.S.-Russia bilateral relationship requires looking ahead. We need to begin a two-way conversation about what we want the situation to look like in five years and how we might get there. The agenda should align with the shift in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s priorities away from military spending and toward turning Russia into a digital economy.
If we get through the current crisis, we must then be ready to act on behalf of a sustainable peace. Failure to prepare will consign the citizens of these two great nations, and others on our shrinking planet, to a gloomy and uncertain future.
Bruce McConnell, global vice president of the nonprofit EastWest Institute and former DHS deputy under secretary for cybersecurity during the Obama administration, recently completed nine days of conversation in Moscow and St. Petersburg with representatives of government, business, academia, and civil society. EastWest has been operating in Russia since 1980. The views expressed are the author's own.